Shirley Hardie Jackson (December 14, 1916 – August 8, 1965) was an American author known for her dark stories of mystery and horror.
Jackson was a master of understatement and implication, creating chilling Fridge Horror from what would start out looking like your average New Yorker story. Her best-known work is "The Lottery", about the dark underside of American small-town life, which frequently turns up in high school anthologies and has been adapted to the screen three times. Her novel The Haunting of Hill House has been adapted for film twice, and several of her other works have been adapted for the stage or screen. She only wrote about half-a-dozen novels, but was a prolific short-story author. She also wrote humorous stories about her family, mostly based on reality.
Stephen King paid homage to her in his dedication to Carrie: "To Shirley Jackson, who never had to raise her voice." Carrie's shower of rocks in the first few pages is a Shout-Out to Eleanor's in The Haunting of Hill House, while 'Salem's Lot borrows from that novel thematically and uses its famous opening passage as an epigraph.
The 1957 film Lizzie was adapted from her novel The Birds' Nest. (Badly, and Jackson said it was like "Abbott and Costello Meet a Multiple Personality.")
In 2007, the Shirley Jackson Award for outstanding achievement in psychological suspense and dark fantasy was created in her honor. The film Shirley, about the writing of Hangsaman (starring Elisabeth Moss as Jackson), was released in 2020.
Works with a page on this wiki:
- The Haunting of Hill House (1959)
- Life Among the Savages (1952) and Raising Demons (1957)
- The Lottery and Other Stories (1949)
- We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962)
Other works include:
- The Bird's Nest (1954)
- Hangsaman (1951)
- The Road Through the Wall (her first novel, 1948)
- The Sundial (1958)
Tropes in her other works:
- All Psychology Is Freudian: Although Shirley largely disdained Freudian psychoanalysis, a number of short stories and at least one novel (The Bird's Nest) deal with a character spilling her troubles to an analyst. May be Truth in Television, since at the time Jackson wrote (1940s through the 1960s) Freudian analysis was very much the prevailing school, though in Jackson's case she also had a husband well-versed in Freudian thought and who had written critically on Freud's writing. (His intensively researched book The Tangled Bank covers Freud, Charles Darwin, James Frazer (who wrote The Golden Bough, about Mythology and Folklore), and Karl Marx.) Also, she and family had lived for about a year in a house that belonged to Erich Fromm, while he was away in Europe. He'd left notes and case files all over the place, although she said she stowed them in the attic without looking. Very late in life, Shirley had agoraphobia, and was helped by a psychiatrist who focused on practical solutions.
- Big Fancy House: Almost all of Jackson's major works and several short stories contain a central image of a Big Fancy House (sometimes doubling as an Old, Dark House) that dominates the work. Notable examples are the unnamed house in "The Visit," Blackwood House in We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Halloran House in The Sundial, and the titular Hill House in The Haunting of Hill House. The Road Through the Wall is centralized around two strange houses: the mansion at the end of the street which dominates the neighborhood and a single mysterious house-for-rent that seems unable to retain a family even though it is outwardly identical to every other house on the street.
- Jackson, the descendant of architects who built huge, lavish mansions (like this one◊), was fond of these in real life, too. Both her collections of family stories begin with the family required to move into a new, larger home that invariably becomes its own character: the house with the pillars in Life Among the Savages is reputed to be haunted, while the house with gateposts (one slightly askew) in Raising Demons has a confusing layout of rooms that seem to move around and choose their own functions.
- Bumbling Dad: Her husband, as portrayed in the family stories, tends to be either an absentminded one of these, or (especially in Raising Demons), a would-be authority figure who ends up looking ridiculous.
- Crapsaccharine World: Jackson was noted for her ability to take ordinary, mundane settings—a visit to the dentist, buying groceries—and peel back the veil of normalcy to expose the cruelty inherent in such interactions. This is a particular focus in her short stories, but also appears in her novels. No one is ever truly good or innocent in Jackson's writings, not even her own children. Arguably her most famous work, "The Lottery," is set in a tiny New England village on a sunny summer day, with the villagers initially portrayed as friendly, folksy neighbors until their true purpose is revealed.
- Creepy Child:
- Tod Donald in The Road Through the Wall has a slow uncertain smile and a habit of spying and eavesdropping that unnerves adults and makes children avoid him.
- Fancy in The Sundial who, among other things, shows pride in her dollhouse but says that she'll take a hammer and smash it to pieces once the adults die and she inherits the estate.
- Merricat Blackwood in We Have Always Lived in the Castle, the queen of Jacksonian creepy children. Though she's 18 when the story begins, she behaves as if she's much, much younger, plus she murdered the majority of her family when she was 12 so she still qualifies.
- In Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons, Jackson admits to being a little creeped out by her kindergarten-age daughter Sally, who has a habit of piping up with some hilariously unsettling remarks. By Raising Demons, Sally has taken to practicing magic (copying her mother, who had seriously studied the history and practice of witchcraft and spoke openly about it) and is portrayed as a beginning Child Mage.
- Deal with the Devil:
- In "The Smoking Room", the Devil appears to a wily college girl and her roommate. After discovering that the Devil Never Learned to Read, the girls quickly draw up a contract they insist is more legally binding, convince the Devil to give them several million dollars and passing grades in calculus, then have him sign it. Only then they reveal that, amid the legalese, the contract actually states that the Devil has agreed to grant their wishes and give them his soul—for a dollar.
- "Devil of a Tale" sets the same theme in medieval times, with a much darker outcome.
- Happy Marriage Charade: Shirley Jackson and Stanley Edgar Hyman's marriage devolved into this. He started cheating on her, and she maintained a Stiff Upper Lip about it while raising their four children. Eventually, however, she suffered from the trauma of it. She and Stanley both drank to excess. Later, her family physician prescribed benzedrine, which was thought at the time to be perfectly safe. It's reflected a lot in her short stories, several of which (including her final, unfinished novel Come Along With Me), are about women getting away and making a new home in an unfamiliar place.
- Ho Yay, Ambiguously Gay and perhaps Mistaken for Gay and/or Bait-and-Switch Lesbians: Clearest in Hangsaman, where Natalie's female friend Tony attempts to seduce her. But partly based on this, reviewers and literary analysts often comment on what look like Lesbian themes or implications in all her work, whether she intended it or not. She was psychologically very self-aware and in her search for further insight she acknowledged that her attraction to yet fear of the idea had more to do with a desire for an independent life, without needing to be married (this was the 1940s and 50s, when women who didn't need or want marriage were often assumed to be gay, and being gay was illegal).
- Lovecraft Country: Jackson lived most of her adult life in Vermont, and many of her stories have the requisite flinty creepiness.
- Magical Nanny: In a series of unconnected, light-hearted short stories, Jackson introduces us to the mysterious Mallie, a magical maid who always turns up just when a troubled family needs her (whether they're actually looking for a maid at the time is another matter) and solves the household's problems. Though she's always called a housemaid, she usually ends up getting involved with the family's children in a nannying capacity.
- Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Happens a lot in Jackson's work, to the point that it's practically a theme. Most notably in The Haunting of Hill House, which famously hinged on whether or not Hill House is really haunted, the idea is used for both horror (as in the James Harris stories) and humor (as in "The Wishing Dime," in which two little girls find a "magic" dime and use it for wishes that all come true in unexpected ways). Shirley would create this atmosphere in real life as well, and had a reputation as a clairvoyant witch.
- Mistaken for an Imposter:
- The short story "Louisa, Please Come Home" concerns a nineteen-year-old girl who runs away from home and returns three years later only to find that she Can't Go Home Again. Because her family thinks she's an imposter after the reward money. Dramatic Irony ensues.
- In "The Beautiful Stranger," a woman becomes convinced that her inattentive husband has been replaced by an affectionate identical stranger. It's never clear if this has really happened or if the woman has lost touch with reality (although the latter's implied). Subverted in that she doesn't want her original husband back.
- Rape as Drama: Critics have noted that Jackson tends to use sex in "dark, disturbing touches," and the few direct references to sexual assault are often all the more horrific for being so rare and ambiguous, often amounting to a throwaway line.
- Natalie Waite in Hangsaman flirts with a man at her father's cocktail party and goes off alone with him to a dark corner of the house—where the scene ends abruptly. The following morning she stares at herself in a mirror while repeating "nothing happened, nothing happened, nothing that I remember happened."
- In The Bird's Nest, Bess (one of the heroine's four personalities) accidentally lets slip an ambiguous hint that she may have been sexually abused by her late mother's boyfriend. Bess's immediate denial that she said anything at all makes it more obvious that something terrible did happen.
- Spooky Séance: Angela in the never-finished Come Along With Me holds a séance. She's a real medium; spirits constantly come to her, but it's very random, so she's not even always sure if she's talking to the loved ones of her sitters. The messages she does get don't fit their preconceived notions, and they leave unsatisfied.
- Stepford Smiler: It would probably be a lot more efficient to list the characters who don't either become one or have profoundly unsettling run-ins with them; even Shirley's own deeply eccentric and none-too-flawless authorial persona in her humorous writing can start to come off this way when you know how toxic her marriage actually was and how much she was drinking. These things contributed to her mental illness.
- Succubi and Incubi: A recurrent figure in Jackson's short story is a mysterious man in blue calling himself James Harris, who may or may not be a supernatural creature. Though he rarely appears directly, women seduced by him abandoned their lives and families to pursue him...only to find themselves stranded and alone when he vanishes. (The original edition of her short story collection The Lottery was even subtitled "The Adventures of James Harris" and the collection ends with the ballad of the Daemon Lover.)
- Verbal Tic: In The Road Through the Wall, Beverly, a young girl with an unspecified mental disability, tends to repeat entire sentences. Shirley later attributed this habit to her daughter Sally's friend Amy, and portrayed Sally as repeating vital words ("I had cereal and milk, cereal") in every sentence. Both girls were perhaps four at the time.