Shirley Jackson was an acclaimed short story author and novelist whose work has influenced a wide range of current writers from Stephen King to Kelly Link.
Jackson was born on December 14, 1919 in San Francisco. When she was two years old, her parents Leslie and Geraldine Jackson moved the family to Burlingame, California, where Shirley spent much of her childhood. She became interested in literature at an early age, and began writing as soon as she could start putting words together on paper.
The Jackson family later moved to Rochester, NY where Jackson would graduate from the 1934 class of Brighton High School. After high school, she went to the University of Rochester in 1934, but she dropped out due to personal problems. She gave college another try in 1937 when she enrolled in Syracuse University. Jackson became a prolific writer at Syracuse. While she was fiction editor for the campus humor magazine, she met Stanley Edgar Hyman, who would later become her husband, the father of her four children, and a well-respected literary critic. The pair founded a literary magazine at the university, and they became thorns in the side of the school administration for their stinging editorials and criticisms. As a result, Syracuse would not recognize Jackson’s contributions to the world of literature until 1965 (when she was close to death) when the university awarded her with the Arents Pioneer Medal for outstanding achievement.
After they received their undergraduate degrees, Hyman and Jackson moved to Vermont where they began their family and Jackson began to gain fame as an author. The family moved to Westport, Connecticut in 1949.
Jackson and her husband unfortunately had a very unhealthy lifestyle. She suffered bouts of mental illness and smoked and overate and over-drank. Ironically, her mental health had finally begun to improve when she died in 1965 at the age of 46.
During Jackson’s career as a writer, her work plumbed the depths of the darkest elements of human nature: cruelty, evil, madness. But at the same time, a strong vein of humor runs through her writing, particularly in her pieces about raising children.
Much of her short fiction was published in the most popular magazines of the time: Charm, Look, Harper’s, Ladies’ Home Companion, Mademoiselle, Cosmopolitan, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Reader’s Digest, The New Yorker, Playboy, Good Housekeeping, Woman’s Home Companion, and so on.
Her most famous short story, “The Lottery”, first appeared in The New Yorker in 1948. The story is about a small town in which the villagers must participate in a lottery to determine which of them will become a human sacrifice. The tale created an unprecedented stir; some readers hailed it as a masterpiece, others cancelled their magazine subscriptions in utter disgust, and still others heard only the whistling sound of the story going straight over their heads at supersonic speeds.
Jackson was equally well-known for her handful of masterfully-written novels.
The Haunting of Hill House, first published in 1959, is without a question one of the most influential horror novels produced this century. Shirley Jackson’s slim book has been filmed twice and has inspired dozens of other movies. Countless stories and novels have been written in Hill House’s literary shadows, including Stephen King’s Carrie and The Shining and Richard Matheson’s Hell House.
What makes this small novel so hugely compelling to horror writers and readers? Part of its appeal surely comes from the subject matter: the haunted house. Jackson’s is a brooding, gothic country manor whose skewed architectural lines reflect the twisted madness of the man who built it. But Hill House doesn’t hold chain-rattling spirits; it has a supernatural intelligence that draws out and exploits the deep-seated fears of the people foolish enough to cross its threshold. And into this dread house Jackson puts a young protagonist who is familiar enough to be sympathetic and weird enough to be interesting. We can’t help but be fascinated as we watch her eccentric loneliness blur to insanity as her psychic powers bloom to create the haunting the other characters fear most.
But most of the novel’s appeal comes Jackson’s skill as a storyteller. The novel is deeply textured and gorgeously written. It’s a book for mature readers, not because of graphic content, but because of its subtle complexity. Jackson expects that her readers are intelligent, fully capable of comprehending a metaphor, and in possession of an adult’s attention span.
In the recent era of gore and shock-horror, Jackson’s classic work almost seems like an anti-horror novel. No blood, no guts, no overt sex (though it does contain a strong lesbian undercurrent), no slasher movie morality; this is a novel that works dark poetry into your brain and lights a chill in your marrow.
- The Sundial (1958)
- The Haunting of Hill House (1959)
- We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962)
- Hangsaman (1964)
- Life Among the Savages (1953)
- Witchcraft in Salem Village (1956)
- Raising Demons (1957)
- The Lottery (1949)
- Just An Ordinary Day edited by Laurence Jackson Hyman and Sarah Hyman Stewart (1996)
- The Masterpieces of Shirley Jackson (1996) (winner of the British Fantasy Award in 1997)
- “After You, My Dear Alphonse” (1943)
- “Afternoon in Linen” (1943)
- “Come Dance With Me in Ireland” (1943)
- “Seven Types of Ambiguity” (1943)
- “Colloquy” (1944)
- “A Fine Old Firm” (1944)
- “Trial by Combat” (1944)
- “The Villager” (1944)
- “Men with Their Big Shoes” (1947)
- “Charles” (1948)
- “Pillar of Salt” (1948)
- “The Lottery” (1948)
- “The Renegade” (1948)
- “The Tooth” (1948)
- “The Daemon Lover” (1949)
- “Dorothy and My Grandmother and the Sailors” (1949)
- “The Dummy” (1949)
- “Elizabeth” (1949)
- “Flower Garden” (1949)
- “Got a Letter from Jimmy” (1949)
- “The Intoxicated” (1949)
- “Like Mother Used to Make” (1949)
- “My Life with R. H. Macy” (1949)
- “Of Course” (1949)
- “The Witch” (1949)
- “The Summer People” (1950)
- “Root of Evil” (1953)
- “Bulletin” (1954)
- “One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts” (1954)
- “The Missing Girl” (1957)
- “The Omen” (1958)
- “A Great Voice Stilled” (1960)
- “The Beautiful Stranger” (1968)
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