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Why Shirley Jackson Deserves to Be a Bigger Horror Icon

Why Shirley Jackson Deserves to Be a Bigger Horror Icon

Horror author Stephen King is having a moment. He’s had many moments, in fact; no decade since the ’70s is without its iconic King movie adaptation. Carrie, The Shining, Pet Sematary, It. All titan titles pop culture fans will recognize on-sight. But one of King’s most formative inspirations has never quite gotten the same spot in the sun, despite her own major impact on the horror genre. Her name is Shirley Jackson, and her profound and prolific career deserves the same rapt attention and devout interpretations.

“The Lottery” and Beyond

You probably know her best as the author of “The Lottery,” the short story every middle schooler in America was forced to read at some point. The story appeared in the New Yorker in 1948, and was an instant phenomenon… but not in a good way. Hate mail flooded the New Yorker mailboxes, and several readers canceled their subscriptions. They were disturbed by Jackson’s haunting, no-nonsense tale about a small New England community that ritualistically murdered one of their own each harvest season as an offering for the gods. The brutality was too much for post-WWII Americans, who expected fluff and comfort after the carnage of world war. But Jackson was never intent on frills and ignorance. All of her works are incisive and hard-hitting—deconstructions of the American dream, examinations of how cruelly women are treated by society. Stories about underdogs, anti-socials, broken things.

Jackson was largely ahead of her time. Her stories pre-dated our modern obsessions with weird, macabre female heroines like Lydia Deetz or Kat Stratford. Being grim and woman was part of her disposition, and it showed in all-time characters like We Have Always Lived in the Castle‘s Merricat Blackwood and The Haunting of Hill House‘s Eleanor Vance. Both of those novels were recently adapted for the screen. We Have Always Lived in the Castle premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival as a feature starring Taissa Farmiga, and a 10-episode TV version of The Haunting of Hill House debuted on Netflix in October.

Jackson may not have Stephen King’s more recognizable catalogue, but she made an impact on both him and society at large, and she should be better regarded—beyond just a few recent adaptations—for the beautiful weirdness she gave to the world.

via GIPHY

Her Two Major Novels

Yes, “The Lottery” is Shirley Jackson’s most notable and lasting piece of work, the shades of which are seen in things like The Hunger Games and Battle Royale. The story worked its way into our consciousness, but it does a disservice to Jackson’s vast library of novels, stories, and nonfiction books to associate her wit this piece alone.

Her second-best-known title is the aforementioned Haunting of Hill House, a supernatural tome about the paranormal investigation of the eponymous New England manor. The contrast between horror and female autonomy is part of what makes Hill House sing; its protagonist, the meek and mentally ailed Eleanor Vance, is almost symbiotic with the house. She is perceived by those around her as insane, but it’s the influence of a haunted house that makes her so. There’s a lot to wrangle about Hill House‘s themes, but its basic ghost story has been a giant in literary circles since its publication in 1959. In his nonfiction book Danse Macabre, Stephen King called The Haunting of Hill House “one of the finest horror novels of the late 20th century,” and has repeatedly cited it as a formative influence. His 2002 TV miniseries Rose Red, about a team of psychics investigating a famous haunted house, is essentially a reimagining of Jackson’s novel. King even referred to it as a “loose remake.”

But Jackson’s final novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, is perhaps her magnum opus, and should be required reading for any adolescent girl who feels betrayed by the world; that it’s not a goth girl staple is a real disservice. The story follows Merricat Blackwood, her sister Constance, and their uncle Julian, who all live in a dilapidated mansion somewhere in New England. The rest of their family is dead after being poisoned at the dinner table, a crime that Constance was accused of and served time for. In the aftermath of this devastation, Constance has withdrawn from society, Julian has gone mad, and Merricat has retreated to a fantasy world; she buries totems, casts spells, and regards outsiders like vermin. Jackson’s dreamy prose and subtle world-building make Castle feel major, and a valuable read for any person who might relate to its hatred of norms.

Those are still somewhat major, if still not totally appreciated, titles, but Jackson’s oeuvre is littered with a number of works that feel more profound in an era where women’s voices are at least marginally more heard. Her short stories are bountiful, and most of them spooky. In addition to “The Lottery,” there is also “The Missing Girl,” “The Daemon Lover,” “The Summer People,” “The Witch,” and literally thousands more. Her additional novels, like Hangsaman and The Sundial, also occupy weird spaces. And her nonfiction books, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons, present hilarious, biting takes on wife- and motherhood. All of them are spectacular.

via GIPHY

A witchy icon in real life

In addition to her magical, coldly comic, and transient writing, Jackson was also something of a character in real life. Google her and you’ll find several accounts of her witchy, spirited self. Early mini-biographies called her an “amateur witch,” who specialized in “small-scale black magic and fortune-telling with a Tarot deck.” She was also known for her love of cats—she allegedly kept six black cats in her home at all time. One tantalizing anecdote, from the book Ladies Laughing: Wit as Control in Contemporary American Writers, spoke of Jackson’s specific magical talents:

Her tarot readings were reputed to be so accurate that several of her friends nervously refused to let her tell them their fortunes. After the family moved to Vermont in 1945, she never had fewer than six cats at a time. A friend of her elder daughter recalled a dinner when a grey cat jumped on Shirley’s shoulder and seemed to whisper in her ear, at which point she announced that the cat had told her a poem – which she then repeated. Joanne reported another light side to her witchcraft. She kept all the small kitchen tools crammed in one drawer. When she wanted one, she would slam the drawer shut, call out the desired utensil’s name, and open the drawer. According to Joanne, it would always be on top.

Whether or not we believe any of this—and much has been said to refute Jackson’s status as witch in the years since her passing—it certainly paints the image of a woman as mysterious and mythical as the characters she put to page. Regardless of her actual witchy inclinations, she did a fantastic job of selling herself and her brand; an admirable trait even now. Jackson was a sharp writer and a wickedly influential icon. We shouldn’t forget the impact she had on the world and the girls who continue to feel inspired by her infectious, comforting words.

Images: Viking Press

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