[The following is an updated reprint of a column which originally appeared in the May 19, 2005, issue of Hellnotes.]
Best known for “The Lottery” and The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson wrote non-genre fiction in addition to gothic horror. Some of her work is light and witty, contrasting with her darker works that deal with the evil lurking beneath everyday life. Her writings dealt more with psychological horror than the supernatural, and her style was sparse and understated (Stephen King wrote in the dedication to Firestarter: “In memory of Shirley Jackson, who never needed to raise her voice”).
Shirley Hardie Jackson was born on December 14, 1916 (some sources incorrectly say 1919), in San Francisco, California, and spent most of her early life in the San Francisco suburb of Burlingame. She became interested in writing as a child and won a poetry award when she was 12. Unfortunately, her earliest attempts at writing were rejected by her parents. But she didn’t let that stop her.
In 1933, the Jackson family moved to Rochester, New York, where she attended Brighton High School, graduating in 1934. She enrolled in the University of Rochester, but left after a short time because of an attack of depression, which periodically recurred in her later years.
Her lifelong anxiety and depression, however, fueled her creativity. In an unsent letter to poet Howard Nemerov, she wrote, “I have always loved to use fear, to take it and comprehend it and make it work and consolidate a situation where I was afraid and take it whole and work from there.” Later in life, Jackson was beset by physical and psychological problems, including paranoia, emotional problems, obesity, asthma, arthritis, overwork, and drug dependence.
In 1937, after a period of intensive writing, she enrolled in Syracuse University, where she developed her literary skills. She published 15 pieces in the campus magazine, The Spectre, which she co-edited, and she won a poetry contest. In 1940, she graduated with a B.A. in English.
While an undergraduate at Syracuse, Jackson met Stanley Edgar Hyman. Hyman would become a staff writer for The New Republic and a noted literary critic. They married in 1940 and moved to a remote cabin in New Hampshire to concentrate on their writing.
In 1941, Jackson published her first short story, “My Life With R.H. Macy,” in The New Republic. This humorous piece told of her Christmas job at Macy’s. In 1943, Jackson published “After You, My Dear Alphonse,” in the New Yorker, the first of many stories of hers to appear in that magazine. In that same year, their first child, Laurence, was born.
In 1945, they moved to North Bennington, Vermont, after Hyman was offered a faculty position at Bennington College. They had three more children, Barry, Sarah, and Joanne, and their family life became the subject of the humorous memoirs Life Among the Savages (1953) and Raising Demons (1957). In 1949, the family moved to Westport, Connecticut, and lived there for about two years before returning to North Bennington.
Jackson’s first novel, The Road Through the Wall, was published in 1948. This book tells of disturbed adolescents and violence in a small town. In that same year, the New Yorker published “The Lottery,” which established her as a master of gothic horror. When the story came out, it provoked public controversy and hate mail for Jackson, with people either condemning it (and canceling their subscriptions to the magazine), praising it, or wondering what it meant. Some even wrote inquiring where the lotteries take place and if they might watch. The tale has been debated, discussed, and reprinted ever since.
Jackson’s next two novels showed her increasing interest in abnormal psychology. Hangsaman (1951) is about a college girl with a friend who may or may not be a figment of her imagination, and The Bird’s Nest (1954) deals with a woman with multiple-personality disorder. The latter is regarded by many as her finest work. The Sundial (1959) is a weird novel about a group of people awaiting the end of the world, which was foretold by a ghost.
Jackson wrote some works for young people. The Witchcraft of Salem Village (1956), written for ages 9 to 12, is the story of the Salem witch trials told through the eyes of a group of young girls. For pre-schoolers, Jackson penned the fantasy 9 Magic Wishes (1963). She also wrote The Bad Children: A Musical in Oct Act for Bad Children (1959) and the storybook Famous Sally (1966).
The Haunting of Hill House came out in 1959. It is, of course, about a haunted house, which is investigated by a team led by a college professor. This book gave Jackson critical and popular acclaim as well as financial gain. Her final completed book, We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), is about two sisters who are suspected of murder and therefore persecuted by their neighbors.
She started but didn’t finish a humorous novel, Come Along with Me, about middle-aged women investigating paranormal activities. The unfinished work was published posthumously in a collection of the same name, edited by her husband, in 1968.
Jackson died of heart failure on August 8, 1965, in Bennington, Vermont. She was only 48.
Besides Come Along with Me, Jackson’s husband edited The Magic of Shirley Jackson (1966). Her children Laurence and Sarah edited a collection of 54 unpublished and uncollected stories, Just an Ordinary Day (1997).
Some of Jackson’s works have been made into movies. The Bird’s Nest was filmed as Lizzie (1957), The Haunting of Hill House was the basis for the movie The Haunting (1963 and a 1999 remake), and a TV movie of “The Lottery” was produced in 1996.
Surprisingly, Jackson received little recognition and no awards during her life, though she did win two posthumous awards: an Edgar in 1966 for her story “The Possibility of Evil” and a George Arents Pioneer Medal (a Syracuse University alumni award) in 1990 for outstanding accomplishments.
Most of Jackson’s works can easily be found online or in the corner bookstore. There do not appear to have been any Jackson books published by the small press.
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