Shirley Jackson: the US queen of gothic horror claims her literary crown

Ignored by critics during her lifetime, the Haunting of Hill House author is now recognised as a great American novelist

She has been cited as an inspiration by Stephen King, Donna Tartt, Neil Gaiman and Joanne Harris. Now the American author Shirley Jackson, once memorably described as writing “not with a pen but a broomstick”, is set for a long overdue reappraisal on this side of the Atlantic.

This week sees the release of a new biography, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, swiftly followed by a graphic novel version of her most famous short story, The Lottery, illustrated by her grandson, Miles Hyman, and the publication of Dark Tales, a collection of her most chilling short stories. And the revival does not stop there: next year will see a film of her book We Have Always Lived In The Castle, with rising stars Taissa Farmiga and Alexandra Daddario, alongside Sebastian Stan and Crispin Glover.

It would be easy to attribute this sudden flurry of interest to the fact that 2016 marks the centenary of Jackson’s birth – she died in 1965 from heart failure at the age of 48 following a period of heavy drinking and a growing dependence on painkillers – but, while that plays an important part, there are other more interesting factors at work.

“One of the most striking things is how relevant both her writing and her life seem today,” says Ruth Franklin, author of A Rather Haunted Life. “There’s something timeless about her work. It doesn’t feel particularly of its era – there’s no sign that the stories are taking place in the 50s and the sensibility feels modern.”

Indeed, Jackson increasingly looks like an author ahead of her time. In addition to building up a reputation as the queen of gothic horror with unnerving spine-tinglers such as The Haunting of Hill House, she also turned her hand to nonfiction, writing essays about her life bringing up four children, running a household and ensuring everything ran smoothly for her husband, a literary critic and academic whom she ferried to work each day, fitting her writing around his schedule. Their light-hearted, sardonic tone feels almost like the 50s equivalent of today’s popular mummy blogs.

“She received all these letters from fans asking how she coped and saying that they were too exhausted after doing the housework to write – I call them her ‘I don’t know how she does it notes,’” says Franklin. “She would write back cheerful replies saying ‘do less housework, write more’, but of course the real answer wasn’t so cheery: she was refuelling on amphetamines and tranquillisers.”

Shirley Jackson in 1951.
Shirley Jackson in 1951. Photograph: AP

Robert Weil, editor-in-chief of publishers Liveright, believes Jackson was largely ignored by the predominantly male literary establishment of the 50s and 60s because of her looks. “I stand by my belief that if Patricia Highsmith and Shirley Jackson had looked like Sylvia Plath they would never have been condemned to the margins,” he says. “There’s this sense that people don’t take Jackson seriously at the time because she’s viewed as a dumpy, overweight housewife.”

Nor did it help that Jackson’s subject matter was so exclusively female. “You can count the number of male protagonists on one hand,” says Franklin. “Her work is almost exclusively focused on women and women’s lives and when her work came out the majority of book reviews were mainly by men. They either didn’t get what she was doing or didn’t regard the stories of women as important.”

Nor did it help that Jackson’s most famous fiction saw her condemned as a “mere” horror writer. “It’s so often a problem that people condemn certain genres as not literature,” says Weil. “Patricia Highsmith was described even in the late 90s as a ‘mystery gal’, Ursula Le Guin has argued for years about the need to treat science fiction as literature. Jackson was packed away as a horror writer and that allowed people to dismiss the work.”

There is also a slipperiness to Jackson’s writing that can make her work hard to categorise. US novelist Jonathan Lethem has described her as “one of this century’s most luminous and strange American writers”, and her best writing trades on ambiguity making you unsure as to what really happened and why.

The Lottery, published in 1948, tells the story of a murderous ritual in a New England village, and was described by the New Yorker as “probably the most controversial story [the magazine] has ever published”. It lends itself to interpretation – Jackson herself at various times claimed it was about antisemitism, parochialism, a reflection of the ugliness of society and a play on ancient mythological tropes – and its influence can be seen from The Wicker Man to The Hunger Games.

In an era when domestic noir reigns at the publishing houses and our thirst for dark tales of women under threat rages unabated, Jackson’s ability to unnerve strikes a chord. “There’s a whole new appreciation today of what it means to be a mother and a writer and how to reconcile those two things,” says Franklin. “We’re also more interested in the lives of women and that in turn has led to a revival of interest in Jackson’s work. I honestly feel as though she’s one of those authors who’s been in the background for a long time, yet has a huge influence on American fiction, and it’s only now that we’re beginning to see how important she is.”

A Rather Haunted Life is published by Liveright on 25 October, £25; Dark Tales (Penguin Classics, £9.99), is out now


Sarah Hughes

The GuardianTramp

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