The Tormented and Tortured, Troublemaker—Shirley Jackson

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Featured Horror Books Women in Horror

Early Life

Born December 14, 1916, in San Francisco, California–Shirley spent most of her childhood in North Burlingame, California. Shirley’s maternal grandmother, a Christian Science faith healer lived with the Jacksons during Shirley’s childhood—later she would bitterly recall a time when her little brother broke his arm and instead of taking him to the hospital, her grandmother only prayed over his broken arm. It wasn’t until her senior year in high school when her family was uprooted, due to an abrupt transfer of her father’s job to Rochester, New York. Initially, she cited hating the Northeast and missing the avocados and pomegranates (two for a nickel, according to her recollection) that were so readily available in California. Despite her fond memories of growing up in California, she only wrote one novel set within California, which drew upon the memories of her childhood in Burlingame, The Road Through The Wall (1948).

Education & Young Adulthood

Despite growing up in California, Jackson is more often associated with New England writers—Nathaniel Hawthorne being one of them, who is considered her American Gothic predecessor. Shirley attended the University of Rochester, but she was kicked out after her sophomore year, having spent more time hanging out in cafes with her best friend at the time—a French exchange student—instead of studying. There is evidence that she suffered from severe depression and ultimately took a year off before she finished her education in 1940 at Syracuse University, where she would meet her future husband. During her time at Syracuse University, she acted as the fiction editor of the humor magazine on campus–which could be considered where she began her career within the literary community.

Along with the beginning of her creative endeavors, Shirley married the American literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman. Unfortunately, neither Shirley nor Stanley’s parents attended their wedding. For Stanley’s part, despite declaring himself a “militant atheist,” as a teenager, was actually brought up in a very traditional Jewish household and his family did not approve of interfaith marriage. In Shirley’s case, she simply didn’t tell her parents until after they were wed, knowing that they were more than a little anti-Semitic and would never accept him as their son-in-law. Despite all of this, they had settled in North Bennington, Vermont by 1945. She remained there for most of her adult life; many speculate that she even used it as the setting for her most famous story, The Lottery (1948).

Her Work & Career

After graduating from university, Jackson moved her entire life to New York City and began to write professionally. Her work began to appear in publications such as The New Yorker, Redbook, The Saturday Evening Post, and The Ladies’ Home Journal. It wasn’t until 1948 when she finally was able to publish her first novel entitled The Road Through The Wall. During the same year, Jackson’s most famous work, by far, was published in The New Yorker and it was a short story by the name of The Lottery (1948).

During her early career, Jackson actually struggled to get published, for every successful publication, she had suffered through several rejections. Even though The New Yorker published eight of her stories between 1943 and 1944, they rejected everything until her 1948 submission of The Lottery. This wasn’t incredibly unheard of, J.D. Salinger’s early submissions were also all rejected by The New Yorker. Each rejection, however, caused Shirley to suffer another bout of depression, her husband Stanley requested that her agent only tell her when her work was accepted—leading to Stanley having to occasionally break the news to her that she had been otherwise rejected.

The Lottery

Among one of her earlier published works, The Lottery (1948), a tale that despite its overwhelming popularity was highly controversial for its time. The story starts off as seemingly benign, a banal festival where children gleefully galavant around the town square until all of the adults of the small three-hundred-person community have convened to take part in an annual ritual. While no one outwardly states their objections to such a ritual, it is clear half-way through her story that every person in attendance is silently anxious. Her story, published within The New Yorker, garnered the most attention and mail correspondence in the history of the magazine. Shirley received several hundred letters from subscribers to the magazine, which she said all consisted primarily of “bewilderment, speculation, and plain old-fashioned abuse.” An alarming amount of the letters wanted to know where such ritual lotteries were still held and if they would be able to watch such a ritual. These days it might seem strange that so many readers believed that the story was true, but at that time the magazine didn’t label articles as fact or fiction. Despite the controversy stirred by a simple, yet disturbing story, it has remained one of the most significant sort stories of its time.

It’s funny how many myths surround her writing The Lottery, but what is even better is knowing that Shirley actually spread a lot of them herself. In a lecture she gave about her creation of the story, she said that The New Yorker had asked her to change the date on which the lottery was held and that as a result, the magazine published the story just a few weeks after she submitted it—these were both untrue. One well-known rumor that has been said to have truth to it, was that Shirley was out getting groceries one day when she got the idea for the story, she went home and wrote the entire thing that morning while her two-year-old daughter kept busy in her playpen, she finished just in time for her son to come home from kindergarten for lunch.

Later Works and Movies

Shirley’s later works included novels such as The Haunting of Hill House (1959), We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), as well as Life Among the Savages (1953), the latter of which was an embellished memoir about her experiences as a housewife and mother. Her 1959 novel, The Haunting of Hill House was turned into a Netflix original series in 2018, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle was adapted to film in 2018. Most of her work relied on supernatural themes and provocative topics that metaphorically explored how people dealt with differences.

Here’s how not to be taken seriously as a woman writer: Use demons and ghosts and other gothic paraphernalia in your fiction. Describe yourself publicly as “a practicing amateur witch” and boast about the hexes you have placed on prominent publishers. Contribute comic essays to women’s magazines about your hectic life as a housewife and mother.

The Haunted Mind of Shirley Jackson by Zoë Heller in The New Yorker October 10, 2016

The Role of Witchcraft

In her earliest years of college, Shirley became interested in witchcraft, her assertion of Christian Scientist as her religion notwithstanding. She continued to study the craft for the rest of her life which aided to her historical perspective and references within many of her books, including Life Among the Savages, which cited historical witchcraft grimoires. She amassed an enormous library of books on the topic, read Tarot cards for friends and family, and was described as “… the only contemporary writer who is a practicing amateur witch.” While that might not still be the case today, it’s interesting to see her having joked about her skill in witchcraft. She even spread the rumor that she had cursed Alfred A. Knopf—a publisher who was involved in a contract dispute with her husband—causing him to break his leg while skiing in Vermont. Surprisingly, considering her interest in witchcraft and the occult, Shirley reported having never experienced anything supernatural. Her most famous ghost story The Haunting of Hill House was based on the accounts of haunted houses that others had experienced, as well as the pictures she collected of haunted locations.

Death

It was fairly well-known that Shirley suffered from severe agoraphobia in her later years, so severe that she was often unable to even leave her house. She had made a full recovery and had just completed a reading tour of several college campuses, where she would read from two separate works that were in progress, the first was a novel called Come Along with Me and a children’s fantasy called The Fair Land of Far. Shirley tragically passed away before either of them were finished, at the height of her creative career, and just before her forty-ninth birthday, on August 8, 1965 in North Bennington, Vermont. The cause was said to be heart failure. As to her direct legacy, her two children, Laurence Jackson Hyman and Sarah Hyman Dewitt became the editors of her unpublished works, Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings, which was released in August 2015 to help mark the fiftieth anniversary of her death.

Index of Sources

The Trials and Tribulations in the Life of Lois Duncan

Categories
Featured Horror Books Women in Horror

We’re starting off July with a bang—and honoring one of Horror’s great women writers! Although she was best known for her work in young-adult novels, she is considered a pioneering figure in the development of the genre, specializing in the sub-genres of horror, thriller, and suspense. Lois Duncan, an author that throughout her life dealt with innumerable travesties and tragic turmoil that most of us only have nightmares about was a figure to be reckoned with. Despite all of the trials that Duncan faced during her lifetime, she somehow made it through as a celebrated author of young adult fiction and horror.

The Early Years of Lois Duncan

Born Lois Duncan Steinmetz on April 28, 1934, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Lois Duncan and Joseph Janney Steinmetz—she grew up with one younger brother, and parents who were professional photographers who worked for magazines taking pictures for the Ringling Brothers and the Barnum & Bailey Circus, as well as publications such as Life, The Saturday Evening Post, Time, as well as Town & Country. Growing up with photographers for parents, found her as the focus of their work on regular occasions, including when she appeared on the cover of Collier’s magazine in 1949.

Duncan knew at an early age that she wanted to be a writer and ended up submitting her first story to a magazine at the age of ten. When she was thirteen, ger first acceptance letter came, she had finally made her first sale to a magazine called Calling All Girls; this early accomplishment for Duncan inspired and motivated the young writer to continue on with her passion. To quote Duncan herself, “[she] could hardly wait to rush home from school each day to fling [herself] at the typewriter.” After spending much of her early years in Pennsylvania, she relocated to Sarasota, Florida later in her childhood where she spent her time amongst circus performers which influenced her picture books that she would write later in her career

A self-described “shy, fat little girl,” as well as a “bookworm and dreamer,” Duncan dreamed of being a writer for a living throughout found herself at home as a child playing in the woods. It makes sense that she, like most writers, would feel some type of insignificance during childhood and end up using it to fuel her passions throughout her life. She would graduate from the Sarasota High School in 1952 then enroll at Duke University that same year before she ended up dropping out in 1953 when she started a family with, Joseph Cardozo, a fellow student at the university.

A Full Career

Magazine Publications

After getting her first magazine publication at the age of thirteen, and dropping out of Duke University during the early, she continued to write and publish articles in magazines—eventually publishing over three hundred such articles in a variety of different magazines. In 1958, she ended up writing an incredibly successful short story in Seventeen magazine, titled Love Song for Joyce under the pen name of Lois Kerry—she nearly didn’t win the contest it was meant for because an underage boy was drinking a beer and it was considered inappropriate. When Seventeen asked her to change it to a Coke, she obliged and took home a thousand dollar prize. This helped her to secure her first young adult writing contract, from which she produced Debutante Hill in 1959.

After divorcing her first husband, Duncan moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1962 with her children and supported herself and her children by writing greeting cards and fictional confessionals for pulp magazines. Four years after relocating she published the novel Ransom, for which she earned herself the Edgar Allan Poe Award nomination, which also marked her transition from romance fiction to more suspense-oriented works.

Teaching Work

During the early 1970s, Duncan was hired to teach journalism at the University of New Mexico, which she later confessed was a mistake on the part of the person who hired her—having been a friend—having overlooked the fact that she did not have a degree when she was chosen as a replacement, due to her extensive experience writing for magazines. To remedy the situation, Duncan earned her B.A. degree in English in 1977 while simultaneously teaching journalism.

Suspense and Horror Novels

Duncan had a personal interest in supernatural and speculative fiction, which inspired her to write a variety of suspense and horror novels that were aimed for teenagers, some of which were adapted for the big screen. In 1978, her novel Summer of Fear was adapted to film by Wes Craven, but her most famous example, by far, was the 1997 film I Know What You Did Last Summer, which was adapted from her 1973 novel of the same name. It’s possible that much of the slasher horror craze was derived from Duncan’s novels, wherein she broke major ground by creating novels that didn’t capitalize on sex, drugs, and the bad-boy image of its characters, but more so on the ability of teenagers to be nasty and twist anything to justify their own means.

After the death of her youngest daughter in 1989 Duncan only wrote one more horror novel, titled Gallows Hill in 1997—since her daughter’s death marked a complete shift in her writing. In 1992 she penned a non-fiction account that detailed her daughter’s unsolved murder titled Who Killed My Daughter? but otherwise stuck to less dark material. Due to the own impact it had on her life, Duncan also founded a research center that was designed to help investigated cold cases, it would eventually evolve into a nonprofit Resource Center for Victims of Violent Deaths—this was in an effort to help anyone who had to deal with the trauma that she herself went through.

The Death of Her Daughter

July 16, 1989 marked a terrible day in the life of Lois Duncan—her eighteen-year-old daughter Kaitlyn Arquette was driving her car in Albuquerque, New Mexico was shot twice in the head. She was the victim of a drive-by shooting and she died the next day without ever waking up. The police investigation that ensued concluded that the death of Kaitlyn was the result of her being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Three men ended up being charged in the case of her death, but the charges were dropped due to a lack of evidence. Duncan was never satisfied with the result of her daughter’s case—she ended up investigating on her own and discovered that her daughter’s boyfriend was involved in an insurance scam. She believed that her daughter had somehow uncovered the scam and ended up being the target of someone who had been involved—not necessarily by her daughter’s boyfriend, but by one of his associates—with someone who didn’t want her daughter to blow the whistle on their organized criminal activity.

The police stopped investigating the death of Kaitlyn and the crime was never solved, but in 1992 she finally published Who Killed My Daughter? She confessed that it was the most difficult book that she ever had to write, but being that it was a non-fiction book and about her own daughter’s murder, it’s no mystery as to why it would have been. Kaitlyn’s family continued to pursue the investigation of her death and new information continued to surface long after the case was closed. The case and subsequent book were regularly featured, with the hopes that it would help improve the situation, on shows like Good Morning America, Larry King Live, Unsolved Mysteries, Inside Edition, and Sally Jessy Raphael. Lois and her husband Don Arquette created an maintained the Real Crimes website in order to help other families who were experiencing similar situations. Lois would interview families of homicide victims whose cases were believed to have been improperly handled by law enforcement and Don would back any allegations to actual documentation that was released to the public, such as police reports, autopsy records, as well as crime scene photographs.

At the End…

Duncan passed away on June 15, 2016, as the result of a stroke and left behind a small army of devastated fans and people whose lives she had touched. Lois was survived by her husband Don Arquette, her four remaining children and six grandchildren.