(1919-1965) US fabulist best remembered for The Haunting of Hill House (1959) and her celebrated, frequently anthologized short story "The Lottery" (1948). Beyond these, and outside a relatively small coterie of admirers, her stylistic and thematic influence on Horror fiction received scant acknowledgement until the 1980s. Yet her outstanding tales of psychological terror display a genuine eccentricity and ability to shock.
SJ's first story, the one-page "Janice" (1937), was about a suicidal student. By the mid-1940s she had become a regular contributor to The New Yorker. In her eleventh story for the magazine, "The Lottery" (1948), the "winner" of a town's annual lottery is taken out and stoned to death – at ten o'clock on a Saturday morning so the citizens can get home in time for lunch. All the more unsettling because of its straightforward, no-frills approach, the story drew an avalanche of outraged complaints. Now considered a minor classic of contemporary US literature, it was collected the following year with other short fiction for her first book, The Lottery, or, The Adventures of James Harris (coll 1949). The stories here and in the posthumous The Magic of Shirley Jackson (coll 1966) and Come Along With Me (coll 1968), both edited by Stanley Edgar Hyman, give a sampling of her preoccupations – psychological derangement and alienation – and demonstrate one of the most intriguing aspects of her work: the fact that you never quite know if the supernatural element is real or a figment of her characters' disturbed minds (i.e., if these are straightforward fantasies or fantasies of Perception).
The early 1950s saw Jackson expanding into novel form, with Hangsaman (1951) and The Bird's Nest (1954, vt Lizzie 1957), both of which depict mental disintegration. They have values, not least the inclusion of a strain of black humour generally more in evidence in the novels than the shorts, but the overall effect is less than satisfying and neither has dated particularly well.
Her last three novels, The Sundial (1958), The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), are the most impressive.
In The Sundial, a book in which all the strands do not come together adroitly, a ghost appears to the unsavoury, neurotic Halloran family to make dire predictions about a coming apocalypse. They barricade themselves in their New England home to await the End of the World. The wry humour of the opening gives way to a more harrowing and claustrophobic ambience. As the prophecy appears to come true – storms build and supernatural omens occur – it seems their decision to hide away may have been a right one, but the book ends suddenly and we never find out.
The Haunting of Hill House, on the other hand, is near perfect in terms of style and structure. Eleanor Vance, troubled by the death of her overbearing mother, was the centre of poltergeist activity as a child. Parapsychologist John Montague, believing she is a sensitive, invites her to take part in an investigation of unusual happenings at Hill House. They are accompanied by Luke, a flip cynic looking to inherit the place; and Theodora, a self-seeking young psychic. Eleanor is the epicentre of increasingly violent manifestations and becomes convinced that the house, a malignant sponge for emotional energy, will never let her leave. It finally claims her. SJ leaves the extent of Eleanor's unwilling complicity in what goes on in the house unresolved. There is little doubt Hill House is haunted in some way; the question is to what extent Eleanor is responsible for the phenomena. It is a testament to the author's skill in weaving Eleanor's possible descent into something like insanity with the supernatural occurrences that we cannot disentangle the two. Ultimately it doesn't matter, because the book is a study in character and atmosphere. Robert Wise filmed the book as The Haunting (1963).
We Have Always Lived in the Castle has no supernatural content at all – at least, not overtly so. The story is narrated by a disturbed teenager who may have slaughtered her entire family, and who has created a completely self-contained internal world. For her the outside is a barren landscape populated by ghosts and ghouls. SJ manages to elicit our sympathy for this character: by the time a gang of villagers run amok and burn down the house we are rooting for the "monster". [SN]
other works: The Road Through the Wall (1948, vt The Other Side of the Street, 1956); The Witchcraft of Salem Village (1956), nonfiction, juvenile; The Bad Children: A Play in One Act for Bad Children (1959); Life Among the Savages (1953) and Raising Demons (1957), both nonfiction with SJ's husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman (1919-1970), uncredited; 9 Magic Wishes (1963), juvenile; Famous Sally (1966), juvenile; and Special Delivery: A Useful Book for Brand-New Mothers (1960, vt And Baby Makes Three, 1960), nonfiction; and Just an Ordinary Day (coll 1997), ed Laurence Jackson Hyman and Sarah Hyman Stewart. Jackson also wrote a play of The Lottery (1952, in Best Television Plays 1950-1951, ed William I Kauffman).
further reading: Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson by Judy Oppenheimer (1988); and Jackson by Lenemaja Friedman (1975).