Six Novels by Shirley Jackson: Psychological Thrillers by a Master

Haunting of hill house by Shirley Jackson

American author Shirley Jackson (1916 – 1965) was known for fiction and nonfiction works that have influenced generations of writers who came after her. Presented here are the six novels by Shirley Jackson that were published in her lifetime. If you’re looking for where to begin with Shirley Jackson’s books, start anywhere — they’re all engrossing reads.

Jackson remains best known for “The Lottery” (1948), her widely anthologized (and also widely banned) short story. This controversial work, published the same year as her first novel, put her on the literary map.

It’s not easy to categorize Jackson’s work. Psychological terror or thriller may come close, if one considers that Stephen King and Neil Gaiman have cited her as an influence. Her six novels and scores of short stories uncover the evil and ugliness that lurk just under the surface of propriety and social mores.

In addition to her six novels, she wrote dozens of short stories and was also known for her wryly humorous (and idealized) accounts of family life, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons.

Jackson’s two last finished novels, The Haunting of Hill House (1959) and We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962) are considered her masterworks. Following each of the brief introductions to the novels, you’ll find a link to a full review and/or analysis.


. . . . . . . . . .

The Road Through the Wall (1948)

The road through the wall by shirley Jackson 1948

The Road Through the Wall was Shirley Jackson’s first novel. That was also the year when her short story, “The Lottery,” was published, making her instantly famous (as well as infamous). 

Jackson claimed that the novel was loosely based on her childhood in a well-to-do neighborhood in California. Admitting that it was somewhat of a revenge novel, she asserted that a first novel’s purpose, after all, was to get back one’s parents.

As in several of Jackson’s stories and novels, we do indeed see the world – and in this case Pepper Street is its own world – largely through children and their mothers; Jackson didn’t – possibly couldn’t – ever write a sympathetic male character.

Fourteen-year-old Harriet lives in a middle-class suburb in California – not completely unlike the one where Jackson herself was born – where everyone knows everyone else’s business.

This a chamber piece where many characters have an equal part and Harriet is simply one of the actors in the drama. Nevertheless, she is drawn in great detail and the novel does show her awkwardly coming of age, at least in one sense.

An analysis of The Road Through the Wall.


. . . . . . . . . .

Hangsaman (1952)

Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson occasionally turned to true crime news stories as jumping-off points for her novels of psychological terror and suspense. This was apparently the case for her second novel, Hangsaman (1951).

Jackson, her husband, and their four children were living in North Bennington when 18-year-old Bennington College freshman Paula Jean Weldon disappeared. She went out for a hike on December 1, 1946, and simply never returned.

There were, and have since been, theories about what might have happened to Weldon, but neither she —nor her body — were ever found.

Hangsaman is the dark and unsettling tale of a young woman named Natalie Waite as she sets off into the world of college. This brief synopsis is from the 2013 reissue edition (Penguin):

“Seventeen-year-old Natalie Waite longs to escape home for college. Her father is a domineering and egotistical writer who keeps a tight rein on Natalie and her long-suffering mother. When Natalie finally does get away, however, college life doesn’t bring the happiness she expected. Little by little, Natalie is no longer certain of anything—even where reality ends and her dark imaginings begin.”


. . . . . . . . . .

The Bird’s Nest (1954)

The Bird's Nest by Shirley Jackson

Elizabeth Richmond, the novel’s main character, has multiple personality disorder. As she splinters, these beings become Bess, Beth, and Betsy. You’ll find a thorough plot summary here.

In this post, we’ll see three of the reviews of the novel, which received wide coverage. Views of the novel were decidedly mixed. Some of the reviews found the subject fresh and intriguing; others found Jackson’s treatment of a complex psychological condition too simplistic, and the resolution inexplicably neat.

The multiple personality trope was pretty unique at the time, leaving some reviewers baffled by the shifting personalities. The New York Times reviewer opined that the plot of The Bird’s Nest was “too bizarre for the necessary suspension of disbelief.”

Contemporary reconsiderations have been kinder to the novel. In a 2014 review in Flavorwire, Tyler Coates wrote, “The Bird’s Nest is a monumental work, not just for spurring a renewed interest into the multiple-personality story, but because its inventive storytelling structure gives a powerful look at a young woman trapped within her own body and mind.”

Three 1954 reviews of The Bird’s Nest


. . . . . . . . . .

The Sundial (1958)

The sundial by shirley Jackson

Though The Sundial was generally well received, Jackson had yet to reach her peak with her fourth novel. A 1958 Chicago Tribune review called it “entertaining, absorbing, and disturbing,” and encapsulated the plot succinctly:

“An oddly assorted group dwells in the Halloran mansion, on a vast, walled estate. It is dominated ruthlessly by Mrs. Halloran, wife of the sickly heir of the founder, who may have murdered her own son to assure her control. Assorted relatives, a governess, and a young man of vague duties are the original entourage to which some random members are added.

To spinsterish Aunt Fanny, the founder’s daughter, a revelation is vouchsafed from her deceased father. The dreadful, fiery end of the world is imminent. All those in the safety of the father’s house will survive, to emerge to a new world.

Through successive revelations, the truth of this apocalypse impresses itself on all the group. The novel follows their preparations for the majestic even as the hour draws near. The suspense becomes great, the events are surprising, but how Miss Jackson plays out her end game is classified information.”

A review of The Sundial


. . . . . . . . . .

The Haunting of Hill House (1959)

Haunting of hill house by Shirley Jackson

The Haunting of Hill House is a novel in the gothic horror genre, though it might be more accurately described as a literary ghost story. A finalist for the National Book Award, it’s a masterful story of psychological terror.

Hill House is a mansion built by Hugh Crain, who long ago passed away. Dr. John Montague, an investigator of the supernatural, wishes to conduct a study there to find the existence of spirits.

With him are three young companions including Luke, the young heir to the mysterious house, and two young women, Eleanor and Theordora. Eleanor is unquestionably the central character, and a close reading of the novel is an exploration of her essential loneliness and psychological breakdown.

Numerous contemporary writers have sung the praises of The Haunting of Hill House and/or cited it as an influence on their own work. Here is Neil Gaiman, in a New York Times interview (2018):

“The books that have profoundly scared me when I read them … But Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House beats them all: a maleficent house, real human protagonists, everything half-seen or happening in the dark. It scared me as a teenager and it haunts me still, as does Eleanor, the girl who comes to stay.” 

A review and analysis of The Haunting of Hill House


. . . . . . . . .

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

We have always lived in the castle by Shirley Jackson

We Have Always Lived in the Castle  (1962) was Jackson’s last published work in her lifetime.  The narrator, Mary Katherine “Merricat” Blackwood, lives with her sister and uncle on an isolated estate in rural Vermont.

The Blackwoods have been shunned by the neighbors in the nearby village due to a tragedy — murder by poisoning — that occurred some years earlier. This critically acclaimed novel has been an inspiration to authors that came after who write in the thriller and mystery genres.

The opening paragraph of We Have Always Lived in the Castle is iconic, and pure Shirley Jackson:

“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantaganet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.”

Shirley Jackson books
Shirley Jackson’s books on*
. . . . . . . . . .
*This is a affiliate link. If a product is purchased by linking through, Literary Ladies Guide receives a modest commission, which helps us to continue to grow.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *