by ZJ Czupor

The Tumultuous Life of an American Literary Icon: Shirley Jackson

With the approach of Halloween, I thought we should explore the tumultuous life of mystery and horror author Shirley Jackson and two of her most notable and terrifying works—”The Lottery” and The Haunting of Hill House (Viking, 1959).

The Haunting of Hill House is about four adults who investigate a reportedly haunted mansion. The protagonist, Eleanor Vance, a lonely, imaginative young woman, believes spirits have targeted her in the big isolated house she co-owns with her sister.

This chilling novel was Jackson’s fifth in which she uses terror to grab the reader. While the house doesn’t overtly have a ghost, Jackson said, “The house is the haunting…the house brings out the disturbance in Eleanor.”

The novel was a finalist for the National Book Award and is considered not only one of the best ghost stories of all time but the Number One book that revolutionized the modern ghost story. (50 Best Horror Books of All Time, Paste Magazine, Aug. 30, 2018).

Stephen King listed it as one of the most important horror novels of the 20th century. The New York Times called it “caviar for connoisseurs of the cryptic.”

The novel was her most popular and first profitable writing as she earned back its advance. She then sold the film rights for $67,500 (astronomical at the time).

The novel has been adapted into film twice (1963, 1999) both times under the title, The Haunting. It was adapted for the stage in 1964, for BBC Radio in 1997, and as a ten-episode television series on Netflix in 2018.

Her short story, “The Lottery” has been described as one of the most famous and anthologized short stories in the history of American Literature.

The story begins bright and cheery as a small New England town prepares for its annual tradition of choosing a lottery winner. She opens the story with these lines:

“The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green. The people of the village began to gather in the square…the whole lottery took less than two hours, so it could begin at ten o’clock in the morning and still be through to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner.”

Then Jackson pulls the rug out from under the reader with its ending, in which the lottery winner is stoned to death.

It was published in The New Yorker magazine on June 26, 1948. Because the unconventional story concerned a stoning, The New Yorker received the most “hate mail” and subscription cancellations in the magazine’s history at that time. Readers were furious, disgusted, and bewildered.

In those days, The New Yorker didn’t distinguish its articles as fact or fiction. Some readers called the magazine to find out where the town was so that they could go and watch the lottery.

That summer, Jackson received more than 300 letters. She said, “I can count only thirteen that spoke kindly to me.” Even her mother wrote her to scold her.

She wrote “The Lottery” in a single morning. The idea came to her while she was out grocery shopping. She went home, put her two-year-old daughter in a playpen, sat down to write, and finished by the time her son came home from kindergarten for lunch.

“The Lottery” was adapted for radio, live television drama, a ballet, a TV movie, an opera, and a one-act play. In 1949, the story won the O. Henry Prize.

Shirley Jackson (1916-1965) is a major figure in American literature. She authored six novels, three memoirs, four children’s works, and more than two hundred short stories.

Her biographer, Ruth Franklin (A Rather Haunted Life, 2016), said Jackson’s stories often relied on supernatural elements and domestic horror to explore the “psychic damage to which women are especially prone.”  Franklin said she also used houses as metaphors for women’s tensions in the 1950s, trapped in maternity and dependency, and preyed upon by hysteria, madness, and supernatural invasion.

Jackson was a strong woman with a strong personality. She presented a witty persona to the outside world and wrote comic dispatches about her domestic life for Good Housekeeping and Women’s Home Companion. However, her real life was complicated, full of hurt, and illness.

Her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman (1919-1970), was a literary critic, staff writer for The New Yorker,and instructor at Bennington College in North Bennington, Vermont. They met at Syracuse University, where she was the fiction editor of the campus humor magazine. After he read one of her short stories, he declared he was going to marry her, which he did in 1940 after they both graduated. They had four children.

But her husband was a philanderer and had affairs with his students. He told Jackson he preferred to have an “open relationship,” and would describe his affairs to her.

Despite her wit, she held onto an unspoked rage of her husband’s affairs and blamed herself for being fat and lazy. Even though her writing made her the family bread winner, her husband controlled their finances and periodically doled out portions of her earnings to her. Helpful husband that he was, he bought her a dishwasher to increase her productivity.

In 1959, The Saturday Evening Post paid her $2,250 for one of her stories, more than enough to buy a Morris Minor, a British sports car.

She confided to friends how she felt patronized as a “faculty wife” and felt ostracized by the townspeople of North Bennington because she had married a Jew.

After The Haunting of Hill House was published, Jackson’s health deteriorated. Her heavy smoking contributed to her chronic asthma. She had joint pain, was exhausted, and fainted often, which were attributed to a heart problem. She also had severe anxiety, which kept her housebound for six months. For her anxiety, doctors prescribed barbiturates, which at that time were considered a safe drug. She also took amphetamines for weight loss.

Despite her ailments, Jackson continued to write and published several novels in the 1960s. Her final novel, a gothic mystery, was published by Viking in 1962. We Have Always Lived in the Castle was named by Time Magazine as one of the “Ten Best Novels” of 1962.

That same year, Jackson had a nervous breakdown and couldn’t write for two years.

In August 1965, she suffered a heart attack but recovered and went on a reading tour that took her to several colleges, where she read from two separate works in progress. One was a children’s fantasy novel and the other a humorous one called Come Along with Me, in which a recently widowed woman abandons her name and embarks on a new life without pets, address books, souvenirs, or friends.

Jackson was seventy-five pages into the novel when she died in her sleep, of heart failure, at the age of forty-eight. She died at the height of her creativity.

Every June 27th, the day the fictional story “The Lottery” takes place, is celebrated as “Shirley Jackson Day” in her adopted hometown of North Bennington, the town where she once felt ostracized as a “faculty wife.”

And that’s your Mystery Minute.