The Atlantic

How Surrealism Enriches Storytelling About Women

The author Carmen Maria Machado, a finalist for this year’s National Book Award in Fiction, discusses the brilliance of an eerie passage from Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.
Source: Doug McLean

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Colum McCann, George Saunders, Emma Donoghue, Michael Chabon, and more.


As she struggled to complete her debut collection, Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado worked retail at a bath-products store in Philadelphia. It was a difficult time, one that she described to me with an arresting turn of phrase: They wanted my head.

Machado’s not the first writer to chafe against a day job. But her formulation struck me in the way it made daily life’s encroachment on the imagination strangely physical, invasive, even violent. In a conversation for this series, Machado explained how Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House became a kind of call to arms, especially a scene where a little girl refuses an ordinary water glass—insisting instead on drinking from an adorned “cup of stars.” In part, the passage helps explain Machado’s refusal to adhere to the conventions of realism. But it’s more than that: It’s a reminder that the world will try to dull your capacity for magic, and we must learn to refuse.

features eight stories that manage to be both eerily with formal innovations and psychological insights that make them feel genuinely new. The first story, “The Husband Stitch,” makes disconcertingly literal, revisiting the famous folk tale of the girl with a mysterious ribbon tied alluringly around her neck. As the menacing husband goads the narrator, a master storyteller with a Dickensian gift for performing voices, into untying her green bow, the horror we feel at her decapitation—and resulting silence—resonates throughout as Machado explores the pleasures and perils of the flesh.  

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