The Tormented and Tortured, Troublemaker—Shirley Jackson

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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