On the surface, Shirley Jackson’s life might have seemed just fine, perhaps even wonderful. She was a critically and commercially successful author, married to a teacher who was also an acclaimed critic, and she was the mother of four.
But Jackson lived a troubled life. She drank too much, she suffered from various neuroses and psychosomatic illnesses, the household was filled with tension, and her husband was in the habit of taking his students to bed. And people in her community sometimes referred to the author as “the Witch”– she had written a book about witchcraft, she read Tarot cards, and she gave some of her cats the names of creatures of Hell. At the age of 48, she died of heart failure in her sleep.
The conflicts and tensions of the author’s life are reflected in her writing – often horrors are found in the mundane, and there is no clear border between internal and external realities: a mind manifests itself in the surroundings, the surroundings haunt the mind.
When the short story “The Lottery” was first published in the New Yorker in 1948, hundreds of subscribers cancelled their subscriptions. The tale about ritual murder in rural small-town America is today as American as American pie – it’s a classroom classic – and even though the short story may not be as shocking today as it was in 1948, it can still send chills up a reader’s spine.
The title story of this collection is perhaps the one Shirley Jackson is best known for, but “The Lottery” is not typical of Jackson’s writing. Elsewhere, the author wants to disquiet rather than shock her audience, the threat is often latent in her work (as Donna Tartt has pointed out), and as a writer she is a master at messing with the mind of the reader.
The short story “Pillar of Salt” oppressively describes the mental breakdown of a New Hampshire wife while on a visit to New York City; the children with their toys seem like “hideous little parodies of adult life.” “The Daemon Lover” is utterly unnerving as it depicts a woman who spends her wedding day in search of her husband to be, and in “The Renegade” a housewife is taken aback when she realizes that her children’s appetites are similar to those of the family pet. “The Witch” is perhaps less sinister and in a way even delightful. Then again, it may be quite unsettling, and the little boy of the story is not far removed from the way Jackson could describe her own children in her essays.
Dorothy Parker once described Shirley Jackson as an “unparalleled leader in the field of beautifully written, quiet, cumulative shudders”.
Halloween is just the time to discover them.