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Shirley Jackson was not just a neo-Gothic writer but a writer of the Cold War's anxieties. (Courtesy Laurence Jackson Hyman)

'A Rather Haunted Life'

Shirley Jackson’s horror stories acutely depict the suffering of ordinary women

September 28, 2016

“The Lottery,” the Shirley Jackson story that was first published in The New Yorker in 1948, is often people’s first association with her. It’s also sometimes the last. But in recent years, the midcentury Gothic author has undergone a popular resurgence. There was the 2010 Library of America collection, which collected her two major novels—The Haunting of Hill House (1959) and We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962)—along with published and unpublished short stories. Writers including Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Joyce Carol Oates, A.M. Homes, Jonathan Lethem, Rivka Galchen, and Kelly Link have publicly claimed Jackson’s work as a formative influence. Last August marked the 50th anniversary of Jackson’s death: it occasioned parties, remembrances, and the publication of some new stories.

A Rather Haunted Life, an exhaustive biography of the author by the critic Ruth Franklin, was released this week. Franklin shows how Jackson was not just a neo-Gothic writer but a writer of the Cold War’s anxieties. The New York Times highlighted these “two styles” in a 1965 obituary: “She could describe the delights and turmoils of ordinary domestic life with detached hilarity; and she could, with cryptic symbolism, write a tenebrous horror story in the Gothic mold in which abnormal behavior seemed perilously ordinary.”

Women in the World interviewed Franklin about what it means to read Jackson today and why we may need her brood of domestic, psychological horrors more than ever.

What does Jackson’s popular reception get right about her work and what does it obscure?

“The Lottery,” a deceptively simple story with a chilling ending, is one of the most anthologized stories in American fiction. Though Jackson was proud of the story and happy that its popularity endured, by the end of her life she began to chafe at the way it defined her reputation. In fact, the majority of her work is neither spooky nor especially suspenseful: most of her stories are about women who in some way feel like outcasts in mainstream society.

 Do you remember you first came across Shirley Jackson’s writing? What was your initial reaction to her work?

Many people vividly remember the first time they read “The Lottery,” but funnily enough, I don’t. I do recall reading The Haunting of Hill House as a teenager and being blown away by it – and scared to death.

How did you decide to write about Jackson’s life?

 I had been thinking about writing a biography for some time, but hadn’t settled on the right subject. In 2010, the Library of America brought out a new anthology of Jackson’s writing, which I wrote about for The New RepublicThat collection made me realize not only how great her range was but how much of her work centered around her domestic life: the claustrophobia of marriage and motherhood and the struggle to carve out space for herself as a writer, subjects that resonated deeply with me. As I started poking around, I discovered there was a fair amount of archival material that hadn’t been available to Jackson’s first biographer. Naturally, that was irresistible.

Much of Shirley Jackson’s work centers around the claustrophobia of marriage and motherhood and the struggle to carve out space for herself as a writer. (Courtesy Laurence Jackson Hyman)

 You write that Jackson’s “body of work constitutes nothing less than the secret history of American women of her era.” How did Jackson’s own views of gender and the family play out in novels like We Have Always Lived in The Castle and The Haunting of Hill House?

 One of the happiest surprises of my research was the discovery in a barn of a cache of letters  from Jackson to one of her fans, who quickly became a friend and confidante. Jackson wrote some sixty pages of letters to this woman, a housewife in Baltimore, between 1960 and 1962, while she was writing We Have Always Lived in the Castle—the story, as it happens, of a powerful, symbiotic connection between two women.

Jackson was close-lipped about her views on gender relations; she certainly did not call herself a feminist. Yet virtually all of her fiction is centrally concerned with the lives of women. In my book, I interpret the haunted house in Hill House as a metaphor for the entrapment that Jackson felt as a wife and mother in a difficult marriage. (Her husband, the literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, was chronically unfaithful.) In We Have Always Lived in the Castle, she depicts a different kind of prison—the prison women may create for themselves in the face of torment from the outside world.

You pay close attention in your biography to the way Jackson’s husband, the literary critic Stanley Hyman, read and shaped her work—and vice versa. What do you make of Hyman’s reading of Jackson’s work?

 Hyman was a close reader of Jackson’s work: her manuscripts are dotted with his pencilled notations. As you say, she did the same for him. He didn’t offer sustained interpretations of her work, preferring—as she had—to allow it to speak for itself. After her death, he saw it as his mission to correct the misconceptions about her work – namely, in the phrase that he particularly deplored, that she was a “Virginia Werewoolf of séance-fiction.” He wrote, “I think that the future will find her powerful visions of suffering and inhumanity increasingly significant and meaningful, and that Shirley Jackson’s work is among that small body of literature produced in our time that seems apt to survive.”

The dynamic of writer and critic was foundational to their relationship as soon as they met, in college: Hyman managed to get introduced to Jackson after reading a story she had written for an undergraduate literary magazine. Their intellectual entanglement was sometimes symbiotic, sometimes parasitic.

Do you see parallels between the social conditions surrounding Jackson’s career  and those facing American women writing today?

As a writer trying to make a name for herself in the early 1940s while also raising children, Jackson spoke openly of fitting in her writing time when she could—while the children were in school or after they went to bed. In“Biography of a Story,” her lecture about writing “The Lottery,” she describes having the idea for the story while out grocery shopping with her young daughter; her son was at kindergarten.

And here I just took a break from writing to you to relieve my own babysitter. I suppose that tells you enough, but yes: I do see parallels between the circumstances of working women in Jackson’s day and now. We have it much easier, obviously: I am surrounded by peers who work and supported by a partner who takes a hands-on role in child care. (Even in an era when men did not change diapers, Stanley Hyman seems to have been unusually disengaged.) But the essential dilemmas facing a woman who wants to work and have a family – especially a woman who wants to engage in creative work – are still very similar.

Biographer Ruth Franklin. at her home in Brooklyn, New York on, February 20, 2015.
Biographer Ruth Franklin at her home in Brooklyn, New York, on February 20, 2015.


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