Shirley Jackson is one of the most notable horror writers in modern American history. Her short story “The Lottery” and her novel The Haunting of Hill House are regularly studied as masterworks of the genre. She has been cited as an influence on many other horror writers like Stephen King and Neil Gaiman. But that’s only scratching the surface of her work.
So much of what makes Jackson’s writings so bone-chilling is her consistent themes of isolation, repression, and societal judgment. Her characters are often trapped in prisons of their own making, but even when they escape, they find a hostile world filled with people who will turn on them as soon as they get the chance. It’s also clear that Jackson took inspiration from her own life when writing stories centered on these themes.
Shirley Jackson was born on December 14, 1916. According to personal writings discovered by her biographers, she had always felt separate from the rest of the world. She wrote of her childhood: “i thought i was insane and i would write about how the only sane people are the ones who are condemned as mad and how the whole world is cruel and foolish and afraid of people who are different.” Throughout her life, she was also subject to bouts of anxiety, depression, and what she often called a “fear of people.”
In 1940, she married the literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman and followed him to North Bennington, Vermont after he was hired at Bennington College five years later. Although Hyman believed in her talent as a writer, he was, by all accounts, a terrible husband. He routinely had affairs with his students and would tell Jackson about them in detail. And although Jackson was the primary breadwinner for most of their marriage, Hyman controlled their finances and would give Jackson small allowances of her own earnings as he saw fit.
Jackson and Hyman became famous for their parties in North Bennington through her idyllic and humorous accounts of them that were published in magazines like Good Housekeeping and Woman’s Home Companion. In reality, Jackson hated her status as a faculty wife in the North Bennington community, and she later admitted that she’d based the townspeople in “The Lottery” off of her own neighbors. Her personal writings reveal that she hoped to one day leave Hyman. She thought that when she did, she would begin to write happier stories.
Shirley Jackson died at the age of 48 in 1965 after years of health problems. She left behind a body of work that was only given part of the recognition it deserved in her lifetime. Since her death, scholars have recognized the value of her work as both horror and social commentary.
If you have yet to read her haunting prose, now is the time to start.
The Lottery and Other Stories
First published in an issue of The New Yorker in 1948, “The Lottery” put Shirley Jackson on the literary map. The short story concerns an annual “lottery” held in a small town in order to ensure a good harvest. In the lottery, one member of the town is picked at random—for a purpose that is not revealed until the end of the story. We won’t reveal the twist here, but it was so shocking that the story generated the most mail ever received in the history of The New Yorker.
All Natalie Waite wants is to escape her terrible home life and go away to college. When she finally escapes, college life does not live up to her expectations. Desperately seeking the happiness she’s craved her whole life, Natalie begins to lose touch with reality altogether.
Jackson loosely based Hangsaman off of a real-life disappearance of a student from Bennington College. In 1946, Paula Jean Welden disappeared while out for a hike and was never seen again. Welden was just one of many disappearances in the so-called “Bennington Triangle”, New England’s own Bermuda Triangle.
The Haunting of Hill House
Easily Jackson’s most famous work, The Haunting of Hill House has been routinely praised as the perfect haunted house story. In the story, Dr. Montague invites several lonely souls to participate in his search for scientific proof of a haunting at the mysterious Hill House. With him are Eleanor, a shy woman still figuring out her place in the world, confident and lighthearted Theodora, and Luke, the heir to the house itself. As the study goes on, it becomes clear that Hill House is far more than just a spooky old mansion—and perhaps some of its new residents will not make it out alive.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Merricat and Constance Blackwood live in their large mansion separate from the rest of the nearby village. Years ago, their whole family was poisoned with arsenic with only themselves and their Uncle Julian surviving. Constance was tried for the crime and eventually acquitted, but everyone in town still thinks she got away with murder. Merricat is the only member of the family who still leaves the house, using magic to protect herself and Constance from the outside world. But everything changes when their long-lost cousin Charles comes to visit.
When Things Get Dark, Stories Inspired by Shirley Jackson
And if you're someone who's read everything by Shirley Jackson already and you wish there was more—the astonishing anthology When Things Get Dark, edited by Ellen Datlow, grants that wish. Well, in a way. With stories inspired by Shirley Jackson's thematic concerns and atmospheric vibes, this collection is a gorgeous tribute to the horror legend. The anthology includes stories by Joyce Carol Oates, Josh Malerman, Carmen Maria Machado, Cassandra Khaw, Paul Tremblay, Stephen Graham Jones, and more.