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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 literary map — wryly humorous accounts of family life, and disturbing tales of psychological terror. It might come as no surprise to those who have read her work that Jackson was fascinated with witchcraft and Satanism while growing up.
Jackson’s stories and novels have disturbed and fascinated readers and critics alike with their unabashed exploration of the dark side of human nature. Yet, there’s a sense that she hasn’t received her due — In A Jury of Her Peers, Elaine Showalter wrote, “One of the most sophisticated crafters of fiction … with work compared during her lifetime to Poe and James, she has long been neglected by most critics of American literature.”
Portrayals of family life were for effect
Shirley Jackson’s cheerful if messy portrayals of family life in a rambling Vermont home painted a false portrait. As she settled into middle age, she became morbidly obese, addicted to alcohol and tranquilizers, and so agoraphobic that she rarely left her house.
Predating that decline was her 1940 marriage to Stanley Edgar Hyman, a literary critic and professor. Hyman was chronically unfaithful, controlling, and belittling. They met when Jackson was an undergraduate at Syracuse University. A story she wrote about suicide caught his attention, and the relationship grew from there. Both of their families disapproved of their marrying, but softened up once grandchildren came along.
The couple 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 as the glossy, funny 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!
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““The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
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Catapaulted to fame by “The Lottery”
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.
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.
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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 Showalter once again: “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.”
The ups and downs of the writing life
The following observations by Jackson on the writing life is from the 1968 collectionCome Along with Me:
“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 the 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.”
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Accolades and adaptations
Jackson’s novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle was made one of Time Magazine’s “Ten Best Novels” in 1961. She consistently intrigued readers with her thrilling tales. Many of her works have been adapted to film, theater, and television.
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. The Shirley Jackson Awards were launched in 2007.
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.
Jackson was a heavy smoker, overweight, and, due to extreme anxiety, possibly addicted to unsafe prescription barbiturates. She also took amphetamines for weight loss, leading to a cycle of drug abuse. By the end of her life she was extremely agoraphobic, rarely leaving her house. She was only 48 when she died of heart failure in her sleep in 1965.
More about Shirley Jackson
On this site
- Shirley Jackson on Motherhood, Experience, and Fiction Writing
- Quotes by Shirley Jackson on Writing and Life
In addition to these book-length works, Jackson wrote scores of short stories. Find her complete bibliography here.
- The Road Through the Wall (1948)
- The Lottery and Other Stories(1949)
- The Haunting of Hill House (1959)
- We Have Always Lived in the Castle(1962)
- Come Along With Me (1968)
- Just an Ordinary Day: Uncollected Stories (1995)
- Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings (2015)
- 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)
Autobiographies and Biographies
- Life Among the Savages (1953)
- Raising Demons (1957)
- Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson by Judy Oppenheimer
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