Shirley Jackson: So Much More than One Story

I got a lovely email from Chauceriangirl telling me she loved my blog & expressing her shared admiration for my dear beloved Shirley Jackson. (The link takes you to a great post she wrote about Shirley Jackson inspired by our email exchange.)

In her email, she wrote (printed with her permission):

I just spent a little more time at your blog than I usually do, and noticed that you have Shirley Jackson listed as one of your favourite writers. I have loved her since I was a kid. My mother had Raising Demons and I loved it, and was even more fascinated later on when I found her other works and tried to put them together with the mental image I had of the mother in Raising Demons. She fascinates me. I’ve read everything I’ve been able to find by and about her, and wish there were more available.

I think Shirley Jackson is extremely underrated. She’s best known as the writer of the creepiest short story you’ll ever be forced to read in 11th grade English (“The Lottery”). You also might know her as the author of The Haunting of Hill House, which was made into a movie in the 60s with Julie Harris and Claire Bloom, and in the 90s with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Lili Taylor. The first one is awesome.

What you probably don’t know is that Jackson’s books is that underneath their gothic trappings they’re acutely observed expressions of a particular kind of postwar panicked malaise that I’ve never seen dealt with anywhere else. Her characters are traumatized and damaged, yet many of them seem curiously unwilling to do anything about it. They’re not garrulous analysands, nor are they in proactive, capable self-denial. They know something is deeply, deeply wrong, and construct elaborate psychological artifices to cope without coping.

She’s also wickedly funny (my favorite story of hers is “Charles”) and knows how to scare you silly. My favorite book of hers, Hangsaman, is hard to find, but I highly recommend Hill House and if you like that, give We Have Always Lived in the Castle a try.

Today’s work read was a melodrama wrapped in a detective procedural that made me wish Alfred Hitchcock were still around.

12 thoughts on “Shirley Jackson: So Much More than One Story”

  1. I love “The Lottery” and you know what’s the best thing ever? Assigning it to students to read in class, and watching as one by one, they look up at you in horror! 🙂

  2. I remember reading The Haunting of Hill House in high school (which was, um… a long time ago…) and being riveted by it. Just couldn’t put it down. I should read it again. I remember that I just randomly picked it up at the library and was surprised by how good it was. Never saw the films.

  3. The 60s one is fantastic–eerie and wild and tormented. Full-on Gothic fabulousness.

    The 90s one is unwatchable. They made it a special effects extravaganza and lost everything great about the story.

  4. Superfast – I’ll have to pick up the 60’s one, then. AND read the book again.

    re: 90’s one – exactly the concerns for the upcoming release of The Dark is Rising, eh? Losing what’s great about the story. Hollywood tends to think that throwing special effects at something can make up for lack of story.

    Kelly – I’d say start with Haunting of Hill House!

  5. Definitely Haunting of Hill House!

    I have no beef with special effects per se–I adored The Lord of the Rings trilogy–but the problem comes when they start off with the effects and work backwards into the story, instead the other way around.

  6. Haunting of Hill House is a good one to start with. I also just adore The Birds Nest.

    I must confess to liking the newer movie that is allegedly based on Haunting of Hill House. But I have to completely separate it from the book in my mind or else I just sit there and get annoyed.

  7. Oh, wonderful! This is another opportunity to strongly recommend the fine biography of Shirley Jackson by Judy Oppenheimer. It was published in ’87 or ’88, and sadly, it’s out-of-print. Hunt up a copy. You will not be sorry.

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