THE DAEMON LOVER: AN ESSAY
By SHANNON WATKINS
“The Daemon Lover” is one of Shirley Jackson’s better-known short stories and a masterstroke of quiet horror, in which everything in the story slowly slips out of true but the author hits the mark dead-on.
And of course, if you haven’t read it, prepare for spoilers. (But really, go read it.)
An old Scottish ballad of the same name tells the story of a woman whose lover, after a seven-year absence, returns to her in the middle of the night only to find she has married another man and had children by him. Some versions describe their previous relationship in detail, some say she has a lone son, but the basic story is the same. The lover entices her to abandon them and run off with him to sea in his ship which is sumptuous but has no crewmen. Once they’re out in deep waters, she sees a sunny, hilly land in one direction and a dark, dreary one in another. She asks about them and he tells her the first is heaven, which she will never get to, and the other is hell, which she is bound for. Then he reveals himself to be the devil and smashes the ship to pieces, sending her to the bottom of the ocean.
Any moral conclusion we’re meant to take away from the song is almost too slippery to grasp, given the questions it raises. Is the returning lover the devil in disguise, or was her lover always the devil? Is she doomed for initially pledging herself to someone who may or may not be infernal, for not honoring her vows to him by marrying another, for honoring her vows to him later and running off with him, thereby forsaking her husband and children, or simply because she’s a heroine in a tragic ballad and that’s the best she can expect?
It’s that final aspect that not only makes it so compelling but also mimics the obfuscated nature of the daemon lover himself. Likewise the light we’re meant to see the heroine in shifts depending on your viewpoint: is she wickedly selfish or merely unlucky? Is she immoral enough to deserve such a fate or just a bit weak and stupid? To that end, which is worse – possessing the agency to make your own decisions and still botching things yourself, or being so foolishly easy to sway that you’re pretty much a walking victim from the start?
As in the ballad, Jackson’s female protagonist is nameless, but the “daemon lover” has the same name he’s given in the song: James Harris. He never takes the stage and no memories of him older than the previous night make it into the narrative.
The story is simple enough: a woman who lives in a small New York City apartment spends the morning anxiously getting ready to be picked up by her fiance on their wedding day as promised, and as the minutes turn into hours and he still doesn’t show, she goes out looking for him. After several false starts and embarrassing inquiries made of shopkeepers and neighbors, she goes to the place she thinks is his apartment, only to find it completely empty. The one next door has voices, but nobody ever answers, no matter how hard she knocks, in the following weeks when she comes back each day to look again. And there the story ends. Instead of revealing himself, this James Harris never shows.
The elements in place could have skewed differently; the protagonist’s quest to find Jamie might have shown her to have courage and heart. But Jackson’s cool, exacting gaze does not allow for anything so warm and sympathetic, and her portrait of a woman’s increasingly desperate search for her absent sweetheart is the province of terrified compulsion, not the concern of one equal for another.
Everything about the narrative indicates a protagonist who has the same shrill, nervous quality as Tessie Hutchinson from “The Lottery.” We have no idea where she’s from, what her likes and dislikes are (most of her choices are made with Jamie in mind), what her life up until this point has been like, or if she later finds someone else. Start to finish, she’s a nervous cypher of a woman, eager to please and singlemindedly fixated on purchasing respectability through marriage, a feminist’s nightmare. Her desperation is easy to understand but hard to witness, despite her seclusion. She’s not really intimate with her sister and no friends are buzzing around her apartment to form a bridal party. For all intents and purposes, she’s alone but for Jamie.
This could just be the sad tale of a wronged woman, but a lot of odd clues start piling up, adding a dimension of slippage. Yes, in the day this story was published, a nice girl didn’t go into a man’s apartment alone with him, but by the time they’re engaged, she still doesn’t even know Jamie’s address – they’re going to live as husband and wife at her place afterwards, not his – nor is she familiar with the people in his neighborhood. Is this the product of excessive prudishness, a rushed courtship, or some murky con job he’s pulling on her for his own amusement?
Then other details nag at the reader: early on, the protagonist “…tried to think of Jamie and could not see his face clearly, or hear his voice. It’s always that way with someone you love, she thought,” except that it patently isn’t; we memorize our lovers’ faces and the sound of their voices. She starts to write her sister a letter about a future in which she’ll be married, but then, in a stroke of foreshadowing, trashes it. And after she fails to find Jamie, she continues to haunt the building she thought was his, like a ghost herelf.
Once these clues slide into place, the question becomes not what happened to Jamie but whether he ever existed at all, or was a delusion our protagonist dreamt up. Only she might know; we only know what she consciously tells herself. Is there a sliver of a chance that something happened to him? Experience and its attendant cynicism tell us it’s not likely. Then is the whole episode a product of external cruelty or internal madness? The story gives us plenty of good guesses but no real answers. After having followed her so far, we, too, have boarded a vessel we can’t escape, finding ourselves not in hell but lost at sea, with no compass and no land in sight.
SHANNON WATKINS is a journalist in Virginia, as well as a hilarious and kickass person.