Gothic Fiction Author Shirley Jackson: Chronicling the Demons Within
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When Shirley Jackson arrived at the hospital to deliver her third child in 1948, a clerk asked her for her occupation. “Writer,” she told him. “I’ll just put down housewife,” he replied. In many ways, this exchange sums up the challenges that Jackson struggled with for decades. The American author, who died in 1965, aged just 48, was never hailed as an important literary figure in her lifetime. It is only in the past decade or two that she has begun to be recognised as a talented and influential author and an integral part of the American Gothic tradition.
From being dismissed as a purveyor of frivolous ghost stories and essays for women’s magazines, she is now known as a key author in a line of gothic writers that includes the likes of Henry James and Edgar Allan Poe. Her work, in particular her best known novel, The Haunting of Hill House, has influenced authors including Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Joanne Harris, Donna Tartt and Joyce Carol Oates.
Jackson is perhaps best known for her short story The Lottery, which was published by The New Yorker in 1948 – a few months before that trip to hospital. A social satire that mocks adherence to outdated traditions, the story is set in a village where people have gathered to undertake a yearly ritual, each family drawing a piece of paper from a battered old box. What awaits the winner of this unusual lottery so scandalised and angered The New Yorker’s readers that the magazine received more than 400 letters – more mail than it had ever received in response to a work of fiction – characterised, according to Jackson, by “bewilderment, speculation and old-fashioned abuse.”
Born in San Francisco in 1916, Jackson was brought up in an affluent suburb by conservative parents. The budding writer didn’t get on well with her conventional mother, who criticised her daughter’s weight and lack of attention to social conventions. Perhaps as an act of rebellion, Jackson chose to marry a Jewish writer and intellectual, Stanley Edgar Hyman, who she met while studying at Syracuse University.
But Hyman didn’t offer the escape she was hoping for. His personal philosophy was that he should continue to bed other women, even after they were married, an arrangement that was a constant source of pain to Jackson. Himself a contributor to The New Yorker and an aspiring literary critic, Hyman expected Jackson to take care of the domestic sphere, cooking, cleaning, looking after their four children and fitting in her writing where she could. Although Jackson began to earn significantly more than her husband after the publication of The Lottery, he controlled their finances, allotting her portions of her income according to his own whims.
Their home in Vermont hosted a social set including Howard Nemerov, Ralph Ellison, Bernard Malamud and Walter Bernstein. Jackson wrote a series of very popular humorous essays based on their chaotic home life, describing her children’s antics in two books, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons. But behind the humour, Jackson suffered from anxiety and depression, becoming increasingly dependent on alcohol, tranquilisers and amphetamines. Her six novels and many of her short stories reflect the sense of isolation and the mental pressures she navigated at home and in her career.
In her excellent biography of the author, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, Ruth Franklin argues that Jackson was a serious artist whose work sheds light on the pressures facing women, particularly in the 1950s. “Her body of work,” she writes, “constitutes nothing less than the secret history of American women of her era.”
Haunting, unsettling and slyly humorous, her novels almost exclusively feature female protagonists who are struggling with internal demons. Often, these lonely, unhappy women are seeking to escape a claustrophobic life characterised by duty and domesticity. Fleetingly, they may appear to find freedom, only for it to prove illusive. “The relationship between a person’s surroundings and his or her mental state was one she understood well,” writes Franklin and indeed the malign forces that persecute her protagonists often seem to emanate not from an external source but from within.
In her most famous novel, The Haunting of Hill House – a chilling ghost story described by Stephen King as one of the most important horror novels of the 20th century – Jackson’s protagonist, Eleanor, escapes a life of stifling domesticity and finds temporary respite in a new setting, with new friends. But her own anxieties and insecurities are soon mirrored in her surroundings and the terrifying supernatural events that begin to occur. Jackson’s focus on women’s feelings and experiences, Franklin argues, contributed to her lack of acclaim. Most book reviews were written by men, who “either didn’t get what she was doing or didn’t regard the stories of women as important.”h
In her final and most accomplished novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, the strange and wild narrator Merricat lives in a rambling old house with her kind sister Constance. An eerie, fascinating book, the novel explores the freedom they find in their isolation, which is at first forced upon them as a result of a gruesome mass murder, and later maintained by choice. The sisters, Jackson said, represented two halves of the same person, and several of her novels focus more explicitly on the opposing impulses and emotions that can dwell within the same person, creating anxiety, unease and even a form of schizophrenia.
While writing her third novel The Bird’s Nest, published in 1954, Jackson was suffering from insomnia, backaches and paranoia, and the novel’s protagonist, Elizabeth Richmond, shares her symptoms. A shy, biddable woman living with her overbearing aunt, Elizabeth begins to receive threatening letters and her aunt accuses her of sneaking out of the house at night, a charge she denies. Under hypnosis, two alternative personalities reveal themselves. One is calm and friendly, the other childlike and impulsive. When another personality begins to manifest itself, all of them begin a battle for supremacy, each expressing their own powerful desires and ambitions.
While The Lottery remains Jackson’s most influential work, and its themes find echo later in films and literary hits including Anthony Shaffer’s The Wicker Man and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, her novels are accomplished and memorable slices of gothic fantasy that deserve to be considered classics in their own right. Her stories form part of a tradition of powerful fiction about female imprisonment, from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. Yet Jackson’s protagonists are often imprisoned not by others, but by their own minds – victims of their fears, insecurities and internalised anger. As powerful today as they were more than half a century ago, Jackson’s stories, novels and essays provide a window into the horrors rooted in everyday life and the conflicting desires and emotional demons that dwell within us all.
Cover image courtesy Miles Hyman, Shirley Jackson's grandson from his graphic novel adaptation of The Lottery