Eerie, anxious, foreboding: no wonder we can’t get enough of Shirley Jackson

'Shirley Jackson energy' has become phrase to describe our strange and fractured times. Why is the mid-century American author, whose dark stories "told a secret history of women", resonating so strongly with modern readers?

Shirley Jackson. Image: by permission of the Shirley Jackson estate

A decade ago, few people – in this country, at least – had heard of Shirley Jackson.

The American writer, who died in 1965 at the age of 48, held a small part in that country’s literary history; teenagers read her searing short story The Lottery in high school. But across the Pond, Jackson was more of a footnote. “Nobody in the UK really knew her,” says Jessica Harrison, Editorial Director of Penguin Classics and one of the handful of people who were so “really obsessed” with Jackson that they ushered her books into modern publication.

And yet, now it feels like Jackson’s work is everywhere. In 2016, in what would have been her centenary, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, a biography by Ruth Franklin, argued for a re-appraisal of the importance of her work. That same year saw the publication of Dark Tales, a new collection of her stories. Then Netflix adapted her most famous novel, The Haunting of Hill House, in 2018, and a film adaptation of her last, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, arrived in cinemas.

This year has seen Shirley, a psychological drama inspired by Jackson’s own strange life, win awards and arrive in cinemas (it will be released in the UK in coming months). Google searches for “Shirley Jackson” have increased tenfold since this time last year alone and sales continue to rise. This week, The New Yorker republished 'The Lottery', read by Elisabeth Moss (who plays the author in Shirley) on Instagram and released audio of it being discussed by A.M. Homes. Jackson has become a knowing byword for the eerie on Twitter, where things are hailed as having “big Shirley Jackson energy!” and users adopt “[Shirley Jackson voices]” to quote doom-laden news.

Joyce Carol Oates has called her 'one of those highly idiosyncratic, inimitable writers'

“People are constantly mentioning her in interviews,” says Harrison of established authors, adding that “every year she just seems to get more and more high profile”. Jackson has many fans among the literary elite; Donna Tartt has said, ‘no one can touch her’ (a perhaps unwitting nod to the fact Jackson’s characters live sexless lives and often hate to be touched), Joyce Carol Oates has called her “one of those highly idiosyncratic, inimitable writers”.

For the uninitiated, Jackson’s writing was split into two very different camps. A mother of four, her “day job” was to produce funny, light pieces about the home and life of a 1950s housewife for women’s magazines, the kind of thing Harrison calls “proto-mummy blogger kind of writing”. But her books took that domesticity and twisted it into something far darker: the home became a place of safety from the horrors beyond as well as febrile breeding ground for entrapment, rage and psychological warfare. “In her books there’s always this tension,” says Harrison, “between being afraid to go outside, where there are other people and groups who can hurt you, and staying inside, where you can protect yourself, but at the same time you’re isolated.”

No wonder Louis Theroux recommended his 2.1 million Twitter followers – and Richard & Judy’s Channel 4-viewing public – read We Have Always Lived in the Castle during lockdown. The novel, published three years before Jackson’s death, follows a few days in the crumbling house of Mary Katherine and Constance Blackwell, two of three surviving members of a family who spent generations shutting their neighbouring villagers out. It is claustrophobic, fuelled by the women’s paranoia about what lurks beyond the property’s chained gates: a fitting reading choice for a country urged to “stay at home” for months of lockdown.

'I think all my books laid end to end would be one long documentation of anxiety'

Even before Covid-19 struck, though, modern readerswere finding multi-layered resonance in Jackson’s writing, She once said that she “wrote of neuroses and fear and I think all my books laid end to end would be one long documentation of anxiety”. While the contemporary anxieties of Jackson’s age included the constant rumblings of a Cold War, her work also reflected on more familiar monsters. A Christian woman who married a Jewish communist, she was used to anti-Semitism, from both within her own family and her community more broadly (her neighbours once covered her windows in swastikas after she complained that a teacher beat her daughter). The evil of segregation, inflamed by Jackson’s friendship with Ralph Ellison, also informed her frequently unflattering depictions of human nature.

While the villagers in We Have Always Lived in the Castle easily transform into a baying mob (at other times, she writes, “the men stayed young and did the gossiping and the women aged with grey evil weariness”), in The Lottery, they undertake a chilling act of communal violence with little justification. When The New Yorker published the short story in 1948, they did so without specifying whether it was fiction or non-fiction. The magazine, and Jackson herself, has never received more correspondence about a story. “Of the 300-odd letters that I received that summer I can count only 13 that spoke kindly to me, and they were mostly from friends,” Jackson later explained. “Another response that people had was, ‘Where can I find this ritual, this sounds great!’ which I think is a deliciously Shirley Jackson detail,” Harrison points out. “Her books are about the bad things that we do to each other, and to think that for some readers this was something they might aspire to.”

While Jackson may often be termed “American Gothic” or even lumped in with horror, her writing harks back to that of Edgar Allan Poe or Henry James in that the thing to be scared of isn’t a monster, hiding in a cupboard or under the bed, but lurking within ourselves. “There’s always a constant sense that something terrible’s about to happen in her books,” says Harrison. “The horror isn’t supernatural, it’s the horror of what people can do.”

Part of the fascination is that Jackson’s own life reads a little like a Shirley Jackson story. Brought up with endless spite (her mother told the teenage Jackson that she was the product of a failed abortion), Jackson escaped a miserable childhood by falling in love with Stanley Edgar Hyman, a literary critic who was equally unpleasant to her, forcing her into an open marriage and loudly crowing about his philandering. He and Jackson nevertheless bore four children, but she took on all of the domestic duties.

Her increasing literary recognition sparked jealously in him, while he left her feeling abandoned. As Jackson wrote in a letter (in pleasingly Tumblr-esque fashion, she rarely used capital letters): “you once wrote me a letter (i know you hate my remembering these things) telling me that i would never be lonely again. i think that was the first, the most dreadful, lie you ever told me.” In an attempt to lose weight, Jackson became dependent on a cocktail of pills while sliding into alcoholism. After a breakdown in 1963, her agoraphobia worsened to the extent she barely left her bedroom. Her death, in her sleep, two years later was due to a heart attack.

Franklin, her most recent biographer, argued that Jackson’s “body of work constitutes nothing less than the secret history of American women of her era”. This is even more so the case given her two motherhood memoirs, Life Among the Savages, republished last year, and the forthcoming Raising Demons (published next March). When Jackson went to hospital to give birth for a third time and gave her occupation as “writer”, the clerk replied: “I’ll just put down housewife”. It’s a well-worn anecdote, but adeptly serves to sum up the duality at the heart of Jackson’s existence.

'She doesn’t ham anything up, it’s all very quiet, and that makes it all the more chilling'

“I think a lot of women can really identify with her, where you have your life as a mother and a wife and doing everything you need to do, but also the darkness underneath,” says Harrison. “Her stories of women going quietly mad really chime, especially female readers.”

And, of course, there’s the writing. Stark, precise, never a word wasted: there’s an inherent efficiency to Jackson’s prose that makes it feel timeless – not to mention easily consumed in a moment where attention deficit feels at an all-time-high. “Each of her sentences are so perfect. I just love them because everything’s so understated and ironic,” says Harrison. “She doesn’t ham anything up, it’s all very quiet, and that makes it all the more chilling. If you see a sentence by Shirley Jackson, you just know it’s by her. She’s got such a distinctive voice.”

As Donna Tartt once said: “The more quietly she speaks, the more terrifying she is, and the closer we lean in to listen.” 

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more