Friday, July 16, 2010

Shirley Jackson, One of the Best Horror Novelists of All Time

Continuing my partnership with fellow-horror author, Ben Eads, this time we're spotlighting Shirley Jackson, whose novel, The Haunting of Hill House, remains one of my favorite books of all time. Mrs. Jackson, in my humble opinion, remains the queen of the ghost story.

Born in 1916 in Burlingame, California, she moved to Rochester, New York, in 1934, where she attended Brighton High School. She was asked to leave the University of Rochester (a sign of a true horror author if there ever was one) and went on to graduate with a B.A. from Syracuse Universty in 1940.

While a student at Syracuse, she published her first short story, "Janice," and she became the editor of the campus humor magazine, where she met her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, who would go on to become a noted literary critic. Together, they founded the literary magazine, Spectre. In 1944, her story, "Come Dance With Me in Ireland," was chosen for Best American Short Stories. In 1951, "The Summer People" was also chosen or Best American Short Stories. In 1961, she recieved the Edgar Allen Poe Award for her short story, "Louisa, Please."

In Twentieth Century Authors by Stanley J. Kunitz and Howard Harcraft (1964), she admitted she didn't like to talk about herself or her work. Shirley disliked interviews, preferring to let her stories speak for themselves.

Speak for themselves, they did. Her most acclaimed short story, "The Lottery," was published in the June 26, 1948 issue of The New Yorker. No other story has generated so much reader mail in The New Yorker either before or since, most of it hate mail (another surefire sign that she did her job as a horror author). Hyman and Jackson eventually moved to North Bennington, Vermont, where Shirley became a professor at Bennington College. It was in this backdrop, while she raised her four children (of which she often complained about and fictionalized in books like Life Among Savages and Raising Demons), where she continued to write short stories and penned her novels, The Road Through the Wall (1948), the short story collection, The Lottery, or The Adventures of James Harris (1949), Hangsaman (1951), Life Among Savages (1953), The Bird's Nest (1954), The Witchcraft of Salem Village (1956), The Sundial, (1958), Raising Demons , the second book in the Life Among Savages series (1959) and The Haunting of Hill House (1959), which Stephen King called "One of the most important novels of the 20th Century." In 1962, her novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, was named as one of Time magazines's Ten Best Novels, and was adapted for the stage by Hugh Wheeler in the mid 60's.

She also wrote in other genres: a children's novel, Nine Magic Wishes, and a children's play called The Bad Children, based on Hansel and Gretel. The Witchcraft of Salem Village was also a novel for young readers. Refusing to promote or explain her work, her husband explained that her tales were not the product of neurotic fantasies, but "a sensitive and faithful anatomy of our times, fitting symbols for our distressing world of the concentration camp and the Bomb."

Shirley died in 1965 of heart failure in her home. Her psychosomatic illnesses and the many precription drugs used to treat them, along with obesity and a heavy smoking habit, all led to her early death. But her work is carried on in the movies versions of her work. "The Lottery" has seen three film versions, and The Haunting of Hill House was filmed twice, the first time in 1963 starring Julie Harris, and the remake, The Haunting, in 1999, with Claire Bloom, Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Lili Taylor.

In 1996, a crate of her unpublished short stories was found in her house and released in the collection, Just Another Day. She was a main influence of authors of today, such as Neil Gaiman, Richard Matheson and Stephen King.

The Haunting of Hill House scared me out of my wits and remains the second best novel I've ever read in my life, next to Rosemary's Baby. The way she gave the house a personality is unequaled in any ghost story either before or after her tome. Young horror authors would be fools not to read all her work from front to back.


  1. Many years ago, when I was a book publicist, I had the honor of working on a Jackson bio (the first, if memory serves me correctly), and her life was every bit as fascinating as her work. Matheson has certainly been quick to acknowledge his debt to her in his novel HELL HOUSE and screenplay THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE. In fact, he has cited a scene from THE HAUNTING as one of his three scariest moments on film. Interested parties can learn more in my forthcoming book RICHARD MATHESON ON SCREEN.

  2. Awesome, Matthew! I want to read every one of those books. It's true, her own life matched the breakneck pace of her books.

  3. FYI, RICHARD MATHESON ON SCREEN is now tentatively set to be published in early October. Of course, you can always pre-order it. :-)