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Shirley Jackson: Novels, Short Stories, and Other Works

The Lottery (1948)

The Lottery is a short story that Shirley Jackson wrote in 1948—it was written within the month of its first publication. It appeared within the June 26, 1948 issue of The New Yorker and describes a fictional account of a small town that participates in a lottery of sorts. This particular short story has often been described as “one of the most famous short stories in the history of American literature.”

Conceptually, two creative stories come to mind immediately after reading this story–no doubt the authors of which were inspired greatly by the Jackson original. The cult classic film The Wicker Man (1973), then later the novelization and The Hunger Games franchise both echo the idea of a ritual where the town comes together and holds what they call a lottery.

This lottery is, unfortunately, not the type that anyone hopes to win, but mirrors the dystopian attitude where the losers rejoice in the winner’s predicament. Without spoiling the entire story for anyone, let’s just say it’s most definitely worth the read (or simply listen below). What is truly interesting with this story–one that leaves the reader with a feeling of utmost terror and despair–is that Jackson apparently wrote within the confines of a single morning. The agreed-upon account of its creation is that Jackson came up with the idea for the story while she was shopping for groceries in the morning, came home, set her two-year-old daughter in her playpen to play, and had it finished before her son came home from kindergarten for lunch.

Talk about a whirlwind turn-around for something so utterly and terribly fantastic. Along with other myths that surround the creation of The Lottery, there was a time when people actually believed that the story was a factual report–this is in part due to the fact that at the time The New Yorker didn’t distinguish between fact and fiction when it came to the stories within its publications. As a result of the misunderstanding, much to the chagrin of Jackson, subscribers sent her several hundred letters that in her words could be summed up to, “bewilderment, speculation, and plain old-fashioned abuse.” It was especially alarming to her that some of the letters were from people who wanted to know where such lotteries were being held and whether they would be allowed to watch.

The Haunting of Hill House (1959)

The Haunting of Hill House (1959)
The Haunting of Hill House (1959)

This gothic horror novel stands in the same class as those by Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Bram Stoker—to the point of even being a finalist for the National Book Award in the category for best literary ghost stories published during the 20th century. While Shirley adhered more to the thrilling psychological aspects, which successfully elicited stronger emotions in her readers. It has since been adapted into two feature films, a play, radio theater, as well as a Netflix series which premiered in 2018, although considerable liberties were taken with Shirley’s original story.

Shirley’s initial idea for this particular novel came to her after she read about a real-life group of researchers from the nineteenth century who had spent time in a reportedly haunted house and then published their experiences while investigating the site. She spent quite a bit of time researching and studying floor plans of large, potentially haunted houses around the country, and also spent time reading several volumes on hauntings and ghost stories before she sketched out the grounds of Hill House, as well as the floor plan for the house itself. Suffice it to say, she took her time considering how the characters might move about the house and made sure she had a clear vision of how a haunting would play out in such a house.

Check out this trailer of the Netflix series of The Haunting of Hill House and see how this novel translated to a television series.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962)

We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962)
We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962)

Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle was published in 1962—just a few years before the radical social movement of the 1960s and 1970s—and served as her reaction to the movement of traditionalism that followed the Second World War. The fifties was an exceptional decade when women were transitioning from having jobs that supported the war effort while the men were overseas, to being expected to stay at home in order to support their husbands by cooking, cleaning, and rearing children.

This novel takes place in a small New England town where the remaining members of the Blackwood family stay in their ancestral home—they seem to live a peaceful, if not removed life from the rest of the town and its oppressive atmosphere. The initial perception of the people in town is one of apprehension when the main character Mary Katherine admits the anxiety she feels when having to pass the general store when the men are sitting out front. The mood of the novel changes to reflect what many literary scholars believe might have been Jackson’s own response to the changing social climate of the fifties and how stifling it would have been to be a housewife with a job. It also bears mentioning that it brings attention to the ways women had been oppressed in the past, referencing witch hunts where women would be killed for even the slightest misstep.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle echoed a lot of the same themes that were found in her profoundly popular short story The Lottery, with special emphasis on the strange and hostile townspeople who take on the type of mob mentality that allows otherwise sensible people to commit horrible acts with little to no impact on their conscience. It is said that this particular novel served as inspiration to many writers—including authors like Neil Gaiman and Joyce Carol Oates—who, after reading Shirley’s work, felt liberated in taking leaps with horror, speculative fiction, and just enough realism to create creepy atmospheres within their own novels.

Take a look at the trailer for We Have Always Lived in the Castle (2019) and let us know what you think between the differences you’ve found between it and the original novel.

Looking back on a career like Shirley’s it’s widely believed that despite the fact that raising four children is an extremely difficult task, Shirley couldn’t have been such a literary success without them—after all, her first success, The Lottery came only a few months before Shirley was set to deliver her third child. A cringe-worthy moment came when the clerk asked Shirley her occupation, when she responded that she was a writer, the clerk responded that he was going to put down the occupation of housewife instead. While it was true that being a mother was one of her jobs, Shirley was more than just a mere housewife—in fact, she was the breadwinner of the family.

Shirley Jackson happened to be both a housewife and a “talented, determined, ambitious writer in an era when it was still unusual for a woman to have both a family and a profession.” The appearance of a conventional American household generated material for this sassy mother of four—who thrived on the tensions that it created between both roles. The expectations of herself, her husband, family, publishers, and readers gave life to her writing since what was normal for her was unspeakably abnormal for the time. She made this clear during the early years of her career, when she drew, “a muscular woman, looking disgruntled, [dragging] her husband off by his hair as another couple [looked] on worriedly. ‘I understand she’s trying to have both a marriage and a career,’ one says to the other.” The truth of the matter was, that Shirley’s career only really took off after she became a mother, having gained an empathetic view of developing minds and the well of imagination that she drew therein. In this respect, Shirley was not only a sensational author, she was an admirable role model for any woman who may have wanted to follow in her footsteps.

Index of Sources

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Featured Horror Books Women in Horror

The Tormented and Tortured, Troublemaker—Shirley Jackson

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