Some thought Shirley Jackson was a witch, others dismissed her as an alcoholic… but more still call her the greatest horror writer of the twentieth century
Dismissed variously as a frumpy housewife, an oddball and a ‘genre writer’ by the male literary establishment, Shirley Jackson was overlooked for decades despite writing formidable relevant gothic horror stories full of menace. despite dying relatively early at 48, she wrote prolifically and penned what the New Yorker's editors said was ‘probably the most controversial story [the magazine] has ever published’. It’s time we gave Jackson the credit she deserves, so read on for where to start with the woman who wrote "not with a pen, but a broomstick"…
Dark Tales is a selection of seventeen of Jackson’s short stories, released as an elegant Modern Classic, but don’t be fooled by its polished exterior; inside lurk some of the most chilling and disconcerting tales of domestic life gone wrong that you could hope to read. From office to kitchen sink, Jackson turns the most innocuous every day settings into places to be afraid of - and in. As with many of her stories, it’s hard not to draw parallels between herpersonal dissatisfaction with the housewife’s lot and these tales of horror hidden beneath a glossy suburban veneer.
If the stories in Dark Tales have whetted your appetite, it’s time to move on to The Lottery, the infamously chilling piece Jackson first wrote for the New Yorker. It’s hard to explain the immense tension that builds throughout these few pages without giving away details - suffice to say that for months after its initial publication, the author received reactions ranging from ‘bewilderment’ to "old-fashioned abuse". Set in a small village with striking similarities to North Bennington, Vermont, where Jackson unhappily settled after her marriage, it tells of a horrifying ritual conducted quite casually by the locals.
The Haunting of Hill House is the story of a group that spends the summer in a grand house to determine whether it’s home to supernatural activity. Occult expert Dr Montague and his companions, soon start to experience events far beyond mortal comprehension, as the house's long-suffering caretakers can testify. From poltergeists to unreliable narrators, Jackson plays with the boundaries of reality and we can’t help but feel that Eleanor, the young recluse of the party, is imagining many of the events. Claustrophobic and full of suspense, this novel delves into the darkest corners of Jackson’s imagination.
Jackson suffered from crippling anxiety and panic attacks, as well as agoraphobia, and some have suggested that the dark and suffocating atmosphere in her fiction is a direct response to her reluctance to take part in the outside world. If that’s the case, she must have been at her most inward-looking when she wrote this book, set in a huge rural house outside a village in, you guessed it, Vermont. Long considered her finest work, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, is something of a macabre locked-house mystery with a dash of magic and superstition, which follows an uncle and two nieces as they unwrap the family’s murky secrets.
It’s been argued that one of the reasons Shirley Jackson was overlooked for so long is the number of female protagonists in her work. Here, again, we follow a young woman with an unreliable (maybe) view of the world around her. This time it’s a multiple personality disorder that calls her perception into question. This is only Jackson’s third novel, but you can already seethe themes of her later works ererging as it explores a sense of otherness, distorted reality, claustrophobia and domesticity.