Shirley Jackson’s Haunted Houses and Haunted Psyches

In the middle of the last century, as male writers duked it out for the Great American Novelist with stories about men trying to make it in society—Ralph Ellison! Saul Bellow! Ernest Hemingway! James Jones! Vladimir Nabokov! Philip Roth!—an acerbic faculty wife and mother of four was working away in Vermont, writing some of the most psychologically astute novels that have ever seen print, while juggling her family’s needs, a constant whirl of literary society, and her own neuroses and writer’s block.

The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle are now recognized as classics of modern Gothic literature, but Jackson also churned out stories and novels that probed the psyches of abuse survivors, tackled the symptoms of dissociative disorder, and lambasted the casual anti-Semitism and racism that was common among her fellow 1950s Americans.

Shirley Jackson could have had a very different life than the one she chose to lead. She was born in 1916, to an affluent family, with a mother who is often described as a socialite, and a father who she Jackson herself referred to as “dashing.” She could have entered an upper class world, been proper, kept herself skinny, and married well. Instead, she went off to college, had a nervous breakdown, went off to a different college (Syracuse, which was farther away from her parents), and wrote a story, “Janice,” that caused the highly unsuitable Jewish Marxist intellectual Stanley Edgar Hyman to declare he was going to marry her. First, they started a literary journal together, then they married. Neither of their families supported the relationship.

There followed several years of scrappily making a career as a writer around the demands of Hyman and their kids. (To understand the level of housework we’re talking about here: after Jackson’s death, Hyman literally didn’t know how to make himself a cup of coffee.) Her first published story was “My Life with R.H. Macy,” published in The New Republic in December 1941, and it shows the Jackson’s voice was unique right out of the gate. The story opens by dropping the reader into the mind of the narrator with no barricades or introduction: “And the first thing they did was segregate me.” The story barrels through the two-day employment of the narrator, a young woman who experiences her time at Macy’s as a confusing whirl of numbers and meaningless instructions, and Jackson the young writer has utter confidence in destabilizing her readers, and allowing the narrator’s bafflement to become our own. The story is also hilarious.

Two years later, in January 1943, Jackson had her first story published in The New Yorker, and here again, we find a sharp point of view. “After You, My Dear Alphonse” is the deceptively simple story of a small boy named Johnny bringing his friend Boyd home for lunch. But since Johnny’s white, and Boyd is Black, the boys are subjected to a rollercoaster of guilt, misguided sympathy, and passive-aggressive racism from Johnny’s mother. In 1944 Jackson’s story “Come Dance With Me in Ireland” was included in Best American Short Stories, and the following year she and Hyman moved to North Bennington, Vermont, so Hyman could take a teaching job in Bennington College’s English Department.

Three years later Jackson’s most famous story, “The Lottery,” was published. It’s easy to forget how shocking it was, since most people read it at some point in high school, chalk it up to a lesson in mob mentality, and move on. The story itself is far more subtle and insidious than that, of course, and when it debuted in The New Yorker on June 28, 1948, the magazine was deluged with the most mail it ever received for a story. Many of the letters, rather than just being congratulatory or angry, were baffled. And of course the timing is important here. As an article in The New Yorker points out, this story hit just as people were trying to move on from World War II, with full, inescapable knowledge of the Holocaust and the Nuremberg Trials, and just as the US was beginning to ramp up its fear and hatred of the Soviet Union. Shirley Jackson, anti-racist, married to a Jewish man, created a story where meaningless horror becomes a tradition. Amidst all the confusion were a few solid points against the story, including one from the father of another SFF icon:

Among those who were confused about Jackson’s intentions was Alfred L. Kroeber, an anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley. “If Shirley Jackson’s intent was to symbolize into complete mystification, and at the same time be gratuitously disagreeable, she certainly succeeded,” he wrote. In an e-mail to me, Kroeber’s daughter, the novelist Ursula Le Guin, who was nineteen years old when “The Lottery” appeared, recalled her father’s reaction: “My memory is that my father was indignant at Shirley Jackson’s story because as a social anthropologist he felt that she didn’t, and couldn’t, tell us how the lottery could come to be an accepted social institution.” Since Jackson presented her fantasy “with all the trappings of contemporary realism,” Le Guin said, her father felt that she was “pulling a fast one” on the reader.

Jackson wrote up a lecture about the experience of fame called Biography of a Story, saying that a week after publication, she had had to “change my mailbox to the largest one in the post office, and casual conversation with the postmaster was out of the question, because he wasn’t speaking to me.” She goes on to quote many of the letters (anonymously) with lines that range from people asking her to explain the story, to those who simply want to know if it’s based in fact. My personal favorite is this horrifying mix of empathy and violence from a reader in New Orleans: “I wish Mrs. Hutchinson had been queen for a day or something nice like that before they stoned the poor frightened creature.”

There isn’t much I can say about “The Lottery” that hasn’t already been covered, but since I’m always happy to pipe up with a contrarian view, I’ll mention that I prefer “The Summer People” to “The Lottery.” I think it’s even creepier, and it captures the psychological divide between city folk and rural folk quite well, all while skewering the heck out of city folks’ arrogance. (And I say that as an arrogant Manhattanite.)

Jackson and Hyman also managed to throw some amazing literary shindigs in their home in North Bennington. Their social circle included Ralph Ellison and Kenneth Burke, and they were especially close to Ellison and his wife, Fanny. Ellison was one who drove Jackson to the hospital to deliver her fourth child, and Hyman and Jackson edited their wills so that the Ellisons would take over the care of their children in the case of their deaths. Especially considering Jackson’s role as a homemaker, mother to four children, entertainer, and partner to Hyman, she was an astonishingly prolific writer. In a 2014 interview, Jackson’s eldest son, Laurence, related his family’s attempts to gather all of her posthumous and uncollected material:

My siblings and I have spent years cataloguing and collecting her stories. What was surprising to us was not that she was so prolific and had left behind so much unseen work but, rather, the quality of that work. Altogether, we retrieved more than a hundred and fifty stories, most never published, some published in popular magazines and never collected, and forgotten.

Jackson’s first novel, The Road Through the Wall, came out in the same year as “The Lottery.” It was compared to Sinclair Lewis, a realistic novel about a suburban town in California that is thrown into some turmoil when a hole is torn in the wall that has always cut off the end of Pepper Street. Here in the midst of realism Jackson seizes on her characters’ hypocrisy, pointing out anti-Semitism and the poor treatment of a working mother and her disabled son. She took the true story of the disappearance of Bennington student Paula Jean Welden, and rather than creating a thriller or mystery, wrote Hangsaman, an intimate story of an awkward girl named Natalie Waite who attempts to make a new life for herself after an incident that is almost certainly a sexual assault. (“Nothing happened,” she chanted, “nothing happened, nothing happened, nothing happened, nothing happened. Nothing happened,” she said, looking at the window, at the dear lost day. “I don’t remember.”) But rather than offering her hope, life at college is just as unstable, and Jackson gives us an incredibly fine-grained portrait of a mind collapsing in on itself:

Suppose, for instance, that all of this, from the day she could first remember (running through the grass, calling, “Daddy? Daddy?”), suppose it had all been no more than a split second of time, as in a dream, perhaps under an anesthetic; suppose that after this split second when her wandering mind fancied she was someone named Natalie Waite, that then she should wake up, bemused at first, and speaking thickly, and not really quite sure of her surroundings and the nurse bending over her and the voices saying, “There, now, it wasn’t so bad, was it?” and suppose, waking, she should turn out to be someone else, someone real as Natalie was not? An old woman, perhaps, with a year or so to live, or a child having its tonsils removed, or a woman with twelve children having a charity operation, or a man. And, waking, looking around the white room and at the clean nurse, she could say, “I had the funniest dream all this time; I dreamed I was Waitalie Nat” – the dream already fading, and not complete – and the nurse could easily say, “Everyone has dreams under ether,” moving capably forward with a thermometer.

In The Bird’s Nest, Jackson attempted to write about a character with dissociative disorder before the condition was well understood even by medical professionals. She divides her main character into Elizabeth, Bess, Betsy, and Beth, who all have different approaches to the world, and different interactions with their therapist, Dr. Wright. In The Sundial she offered the claustrophobic horror show of a family who are trapped in the family home and preparing for the impending apocalypse. She also bookended The Bird’s Nest with two books of lightly fictionalized domestic memoirs that set the stage for the works of Erma Bombeck a decade later, which won her an entirely different audience from those who enjoyed her dark psychological musings. And that’s all before she got to the two books that are enduringly famous, The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. At the center of each of these sits the lives of women, and particularly their tense relationship with home (both the physical object and the abstract concept), and while men may oppress them, analyze, them, or mock them, it is their emotional lives that drive the stories. They are the points of empathy for the reader. By fragmenting her narrators’ minds, focusing on oppressed characters who don’t have the mental equipment or social standing to battle their oppression, by repeatedly telling the stories of young women crushed by tyrannical matriarchs, idiotic he-men, society itself, and, possibly, supernatural forces (because the supernatural can never be completely discounted in her work) Jackson creates a counter-narrative to the hyper-masculine literature of the 1950s.

Despite this, she was lambasted as a “Housewife Writer” by Betty Friedan—who spent a few pages of The Feminine Mystique criticizing Jackson and a few other writers by name for either overlooking “the housekeeper or maid who really makes the beds” or denying “the lives they lead not as housewives, but as individuals”—rather than seeing that Jackson identified herself as both, and wrote in a wide variety of genres, one of which happened to be gently snarky domestic humor. (Of course that’s nothing compared to The New York Times obituary that made sure headline a section of her obituary with the phrase “Housework Came First,” and to describe Jackson as “a neat and cozy woman” who was “inclined to pudginess.”)

As Jackson got older, she became increasingly agoraphobic. She wrote of her resentment of Hyman (as if it wasn’t evident in some of the male characters in her novels) and her health, both mental and physical, was battered by a diet of pills and alcohol. She seems to have been launching into yet another genre with her last novel, Come Along with Me, which started out as a comic picaresque, but sadly, Jackson passed away before she completed it, dying in her sleep during an afternoon nap in 1965.

Despite earning enough from her writing to be the primary breadwinner of her family, despite winning the Arents Pioneer Medal for Outstanding Achievement from Syracuse University, despite Hill House being nominated for a National Book Award in 1960, despite being asked to join the faculty of the prestigious Breadloaf Writers Conference, Jackson’s reputation still suffered. When the Library of America announced a collection of Jackson’s writing, the critic Malcolm Jones snarked, “Shirley Jackson? A writer mostly famous for one short story, ‘The Lottery.’ Is LOA about to jump the shark?” But it’s clear now as we celebrate Jackson’s centenary that her work is finally getting the respect it’s always deserved. Joyce Carol Oates selected the stories for the LOA edition, Ruth Franklin has written an acclaimed biography, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, writers including Kelly Link and Stephen King have spoken of her influence, and Jackson’s own grandson, Miles Hyman, has released a graphic novel interpretation of “The Lottery.” Her stories of mass conformity, banal horror, and terrorized emotions are as resonant and life-giving today as they were when they were published.

When they got to the end of “The Lottery,” Leah Schnelbach was the only kid in her class who laughed. Come tell her “It isn’t fair! It isn’t right!” on Twitter!


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