Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson (December 14, 1916 – August 8, 1965) was an American author of fiction and nonfiction whose works influenced a generation of genre writers who came after her. Two areas of writing put her on the map — wryly humorous accounts of family life, and more significantly, sharply told stories and novels of psychological terror.

While Jackson is best known for “The Lottery” (1948), it would be a disservice to the reader to boil her career down to this controversial short story that put her on the map. Her late novels, The Haunting of Hill House (1959) and We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962) are considered her masterworks.

“Psychological terror” may not be quite be the term for Jackson’s fiction, which is difficult to pigeonhole. Her six novels and scores of short stories uncover the evil and ugliness that lurk just under the surface of propriety and social mores. Her stories and novels have disturbed and fascinated readers and critics alike with their unabashed look at the dark side of human nature.

In A Jury of Her Peers, Elaine Showalter wrote that of Jackson that as “one of the most sophisticated crafters of fiction … she has long been neglected by most critics of American literature.”

Jackson was only forty-eight when she died. Her star was rising in tandem with her crumbling health and marriage, and as the literary world moved on, there has been a longheld sense that she hadn’t quite received her due. Her work and influence have lately been getting a second look, and a greater appreciation.

In Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life  (2016), a definitive biography, Ruth Franklin wrote:

“She was a talented, determined, ambitious writer in an era when it was still unusual for a woman to have both a family and a profession. She was a mother of four who tried to keep up the appearance of running a conventional household … Jackson’s brand of literary suspense is part of a vibrant and distinguished tradition that can be traced back to the American Gothic work of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allen Poe, and Henry James. Her unique contribution to this genre is her primary focus on women’s lives.”

 

Portrayals of family life were for effect

Jackson knew what she was getting into when she married Stanley Edgar Hyman in 1940. The two met while both were undergraduates at Syracuse University. Hyman was chronically unfaithful even when they were courting, and later became controlling and belittling.  A very short story Jackson wrote about suicide, “Janice,” caught Hyman’s attention, and the relationship grew from there. Both of their families disapproved of their marrying, but softened up once grandchildren came along.

Shirley Jackson’s cheerful if messy portrayals of family life in a rambling Vermont home painted a sunny portrait. 

Jackson and Hyman, a literary critic and professor, had four children, whose antics were prettied up in her memoirs. She famously used her children as inspiration — not always flattering — in her fiction and nonfiction. Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons were early “momoirs” that inspired the likes of Jean Kerr and Erma Bombeck. The Hyman-Jackson family life wasn’t quite as fun or funny as the glossy portraits she painted in her pages.

Hyman was a respected figure in the literary community, even as he was widely considered arrogant and combative. With his wife, he was nothing short of a tyrannical bully, going so far as putting her on a strict writing schedule. In some ways, though, she benefitted from the rigor he enforced and his literary connections. He even bought a dishwasher with her royalties so she’d have more time to write!

Jackson always felt a tension between her writerly ambitions and her domestic duties. In the post-World War II era, cultural forces dictated that women’s place was in the home, which often drove them crazy:

“I am a writer who, due to a series of innocent and ignorant faults of judgment, finds herself with a family of four children and a husband, an eighteen-room house and no help, and two Great Danes and four cats … It’s a wonder I get even four hours’ sleep, it really is.” However, “all the time that I am making beds and doing dishes and driving to town for dancing shoes, I am telling myself stories. Stories about anything, anything at all. Just stories.”

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The-Lottery-and-other-stories by Shirley Jackson cover

“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
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Catapulted to fame with “The Lottery”

It might come as no surprise to those who have read her work that Jackson was fascinated with witchcraft and magic as a young woman, though claims that she was a “practicing witch” were overblown. Yet those interests played a small but significant role in her work.

Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” catapulted her to fame in 1948, and it seemed to happen in a flash. She wrote it only three weeks before its publication in the The New Yorker, “on a bright summer morning as I was pushing my daughter up the hill in her stroller.”

“The Lottery” is the story of a fictional small town that hosts a ghastly annual stoning ritual. Elaine Showalter describes it in A Jury of Her Peers:

“Set in a small New England town like North Bennington [where the Jackson-Hyman family lived], ‘The Lottery’ is about ritual sacrifice and scapegoating. One person in the community is selected by lot each summer to be publicly stoned to death. Jackson made readers uncomfortable not only through the matter-of-fact violence of the story — even the victim’s little son has his pebbles ready — but also through implicitly questioning American innocence after the war: Would we too be ‘good Germans,’ going along with atrocity?”

The story earned rave reviews from editors and critics though readers weren’t as pleased. Quickly becoming the most controversial story ever published by The New Yorker, readers not only canceled subscriptions but sent hate mail to the author via the magazine. “Millions of people, and my mother had taken a pronounced dislike to me,” Jackson claimed. Here she further describes her experience following the publication of “The Lottery”:

“One of the most terrifying aspects of publishing stories and books is the realization that they are going to be read, and read by strangers. I had never fully realized this before, although I had of course in my imagination dwelt lovingly upon the thought of the millions and millions of people who were going to be uplifted and enriched and delighted by the stories I wrote.

It had simply never occurred to me that these millions and millions of people might be so far from being uplifted that they would sit down and write me letters I was downright scared to open; of the three-hundred-odd letters that I received that summer I can count only thirteen that spoke kindly to me, and they were mostly from friends.”

Still, “The Lottery” soon became a staple in high school English curricula and is one of the most anthologized short stories of twentieth-century American literature. The Lottery and Other Stories was Jackson’s first collection, published in 1949. You can read “The Lottery” as originally published in The New Yorker in 1948.

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We have always lived in the castle by Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson page on Amazon
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The 1950s: A productive output of novels

After “The Lottery” put her on the literary map, her output continued at a fast clip. That same year, 1948, saw the publication of her first novel, The Road Through the Wall. In all, there would be six novels, four children’s books, the two memoirs, and dozens of short stories — all throughout the years of raising her family.

According to Elaine Showalter, “Jackson’s novels of the 1950s were all in the genre of female gothic, and dealt with themes of matrophobia, madness, lesbianism, and murderous rage.”

Ushering in the decade were Hangsaman (1951), the story of Natalie, a suicidal college student with psychic powers. The Haunting of Hill House (1959) is one of Jackson’s best-known works, part ghost story, part psychological thriller.

Many critics consider We Have Always Lived in the Castle to be Jackson’s finest work. To quote Elaine Showalter: “Long overlooked, the novel has been rediscovered in the twenty-first century by writers including Stephen King and Jonathan Lethem, and by feminist critics who read it as a perfectly constructed and haunting example of the female gothic.” We Have Always Lived in the Castle was named one of Time Magazine’s “Ten Best Novels” in 1961. 

Come Along With Me, published in 1968, three years after her death, is a collection edited by Shirley Jackson’s husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman. A compilation of stories, lectures, and essays never before published to that point, it features everything from Jackson’s first published story, “Janice” (written while she was still in college), to the title work, an unfinished novel. Notably, this book includes “The Lottery” as well as a transcript of “Biography of a Story,” a lecture given by Jackson of her most famous work. It’s fascinating to read these two works in tandem.

 

The house as a metaphor for psychic damage

Houses — strange, threatening, haunted — loomed large in Jackson’s fiction. Once again, from Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life  (2016), Ruth Franklin illuminates:

“Two decades before the women’s movement ignited, Jackson’s early stories were already exploring the unmarried woman’s desperate isolation in a society where a husband was essential for social acceptance. As her career progressed and her personal life became more troubled, her work began to investigate more deeply the kinds of psychic damage to which women are especially prone.

It can be no accident that in many of these works, a house — the woman’s domain — functions as a kind of protagonist, with traditional homemaking occupations such as cooking or gardening playing a crucial role in the narrative. 

In Jackson’s first novel, The Road Through the Wall (1948), the houses on a suburban street mirror the lives of the families who inhabit them. In The Sundial (1958), her fourth novel, an estate functions as a fortress: an island amid chaos. In The Haunting of Hill House (1959) and We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), her late masterpieces, a house becomes both a prison and a site of disaster.”

A contemporary view of Shirley Jackson’s place in literature

This assessment of the place Shirley has earned in American literature, by Jonathan Letham, in his in an introduction to the Penguin Classics reissue of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, 2006.

“Ten and twenty years ago I used to play a minor parlor trick; I wonder if it would still work. When asked my favorite writer, I’d say ‘Shirley Jackson,’ counting on most questioners to say they’d never heard of her. At that I’d reply, with as much smugness as I could muster: ‘You’ve read her.’

When my interlocutor expressed skepticism, I’d describe ‘The Lottery’—still the most widely anthologized American short story of all time, I’d bet, and certainly the most controversial, and censored, story ever to debut in The New Yorker—counting the seconds to the inevitable widening of my victim’s eyes: they’d not only read it, they could never forget it. I’d then happily take credit as a mind reader, though the trick was too easy by far. I don’t think it ever failed.

Jackson is one of American fiction’s impossible presences, too material to be called a phantom in literature’s house, too in-print to be ‘rediscovered,’ yet hidden in plain sight. She’s both perpetually underrated and persistently mischaracterized as a writer of upscale horror, when in truth a slim minority of her works had any element of the supernatural (Henry James wrote more ghost stories).

While celebrated by reviewers throughout her career, she wasn’t welcomed into any canon or school; she’s been no major critic’s fetish. Sterling in her craft, Jackson is prized by the writers who read her, yet it would be self-congratulatory to claim her as a writer’s writer. Rather, Shirley Jackson has thrived, at publication and since, as a reader’s writer.”

 

Accolades and legacy

Many of her works have been adapted to film, theater, and television. Notably, The Haunting was a 1963 feature film based on The Haunting of Hill House, with an all-star cast. Jackson earned a handsome sum for the film rights. More recently, the 2018 Netflix feature, also titled The Haunting of Hill House, has been called a “modern reimagining,” inspired by, rather than an adaptation of, the original book of the same title.

Jackson wrote a great deal about the art of writing, and her advice is still pertinent to both established and aspiring writers. Despite her self-consciousness, she also became a popular speaker at prestigious writers’ conferenced, and the attendees loved her. She believed that everything, even the mundane, was fodder for the writer:

“A writer who is serious and economical can store away small fragments of ideas and events and conversations, and even facial expressions and mannerisms, and use them all someday.”

As Jackson settled into middle age, she became obese, and was also a smoker and a drinker. Due to anxiety, she took unsafe barbiturates commonly prescribed in her time. She also took amphetamines for weight loss, leading to a cycle of drug dependence. Toward the end of her life, she suffered from a period of extreme agoraphobia, rarely leaving her house. The situation was starting to mitigate, but alas, she died of heart failure during a daytime nap in 1965, at the age of forty-eight.

As a master of literary creepiness, Jackson has been cited as a major influence on Stephen King, as mentioned earlier, as well as Neil Gaiman, Joanne Harris, and others. 

In 2007, the Shirley Jackson Awards were established with the blessing of the Jackson estate. They recognize her legacy in literature, and in turn, give awards in the genres of horror and psychological suspense. North Bennington, Vermont, the town where the Jackson-Hyman family lived, celebrates Shirley Jackson Day on June 27, the date when the story “The Lottery” takes place.

As a woman who worked hard to carve out a creative life being a loving mother and dealing with a wayward husband, the pressures were often unbearable. Jackson’s work, after having somewhat fallen out of favor, has been reevaluated and has gained greater appreciation in the context of contemporary literature. Her writings capture the angst of American women at a time just before the second-wave feminist movement, dilemmas she herself faced as an ambitious and talented writer who also felt the pull of society’s expectations.

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Shirley Jackson

Quotes by Shirley Jackson on Writing and Life


More about Shirley Jackson

On this site

Major works

In addition to these book-length works, Jackson wrote scores of short stories. Find her complete bibliography here.

Nonfiction

Children’s Books

  • The Witchcraft of Salem Village (1956)
  • The Bad Children: A Play in One Act for Bad Children (1959)
  • Nine Magic Wishes (1963)
  • Famous Sally (1966)

Biographies

  • Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson by Judy Oppenheimer (1989)
  • Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin (2016)

More information and sources

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