Jackson was one of the 20th century’s greatest horror authors – but her proto-feminist writing is only just beginning to get the recognition it deserves.
In 1959, Shirley Jackson published her fifth novel, The Haunting of Hill House. At the time, the 43-year-old author lived in a ramshackle house in Bennington, Vermont, with her husband and four young children. Their life was cosy, but Jackson was not entirely happy. Her husband, the literary critic and lecturer Stanley Hyman, could be unfaithful and domineering, controlling the family’s finances and demanding that Jackson did all the housework. Not only that, but he resented his wife’s literary success – despite the fact that it was her career that brought in the bulk of their household income.
A naturally highly-strung person, Jackson often felt claustrophobic and isolated in her role as an academic’s wife, and relied on alcohol and painkillers to soothe her anxiety. While working on a draft of The Haunting of Hill House, she wrote a note to her husband. “You once wrote me a letter … telling me that I would never be lonely again. I think that was the first, the most dreadful, lie you ever told me.”
Loneliness, anxiety, the repression of women and their subsequent rage: all of these themes occur again and again in Jackson’s fiction. In The Haunting of Hill House, which was recently given a “modern reimagining” in a much-hyped Netflix series (pictured top), four people spend a summer in a supposedly haunted house, hoping to find evidence of the supernatural.
By far the most interesting character in Jackson’s novel is Eleanor Vance, a shy young woman who frequently experiences terrifying phenomena that the others cannot see. Subtly, slyly, chillingly, Jackson invites us to question: is Eleanor’s mind playing tricks on her? Or is part of the house’s malevolence the ability to make people doubt Eleanor’s sanity?
Written at a time when women still risked being deemed ‘crazy’ if they behaved in ways that challenged the norm, The Haunting of Hill House can be seen as a successor to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s disturbing 1892 short story The Yellow Wallpaper for its incisive exploration of ideas about women and madness.
But beyond its proto-feminist sensibilities, it’s also a bloody good horror story. In 1981, Stephen King described it as one of the most important horror novels of the 20th century.
The new Netflix series doesn’t attempt to replicate the nuanced psychological torment of Jackson’s book, relying instead on more predictable horror tropes. Yet the basic outline of the author’s plot is so terrifying that this latest screen adaptation has been described as “the scariest TV show ever”. Similarly, Jackson’s novel has been deemed “the greatest haunted-house story ever written”.
The world might be talking about The Haunting of Hill House now, but for many years it was not Jackson’s best-known work. That honour went instead to The Lottery, a short story published in The New Yorker in 1948.
Like Hill House, The Lottery has a horrifying premise that taps into the darkness of human psychology. In a small New England village, locals ceremonially stone one of their own to death every harvest season. The unlucky villager is chosen by a lottery system, where receiving a slip with a black spot means you’ve been chosen as the ritual sacrifice.
Published just a few years after the end of the Second World War, a period when many Americans wanted their fiction to be uplifting and optimistic, The Lottery sparked an immediate backlash. Both Jackson and The New Yorker received hate mail, and several of the magazine’s readers announced that they were cancelling their subscriptions. In a 1960 lecture, Jackson recalled receiving “300-odd letters” the summer after The Lottery was published, of which just 13 “spoke kindly to me – and they were mostly from friends”.
Yet a collection of Jackson’s short fiction, titled and including The Lottery, was hugely commercially successful when it was released in 1949. Today, the story is considered a classic: still taught in secondary schools in the US, it has been adapted for TV, film and radio, and its influence is apparent in macabre modern entertainment like The Hunger Games. Another one of Jackson’s novels, 1962’s gothic mystery We Have Always Lived in the Castle, can be seen as the centre of the Venn diagram of The Lottery and The Haunting of Hill House, for its exploration of small-town twistedness and female psychology.
While she received significant critical acclaim during her lifetime, Jackson also had to contend with the frustrations of being a woman writer in mid-20th century America. In the press, she was either depicted as a happy, homely housewife for whom writing was nothing more than a fun hobby, or as a mysterious enchantress, thanks to her husband telling her publisher that she was “perhaps the only contemporary writer who is a practicing amateur witch”.
Many reviewers dismissed her as a kook, and her chosen genres – horror and mystery – were not considered especially high-brow by literary snobs. And despite the fact that she has been cited as an influence by everyone from Sarah Waters to Neil Gamain, her fiction was entirely out of print in the UK until 2009.
Jackson died from heart failure in 1965, aged just 48 – the conclusion of many years of poor physical and mental health, reliance on alcohol and cigarettes, and prescription drug abuse. Sadly, she never lived to see her work interpreted through the feminist lens it deserves.
Today, we can honour the 20th century’s queen of terror by devouring her sharp, meaty, frightening fiction – and considering the important messages Jackson hid beneath the horror.
Throughout 2018, Stylist is raising the profiles of influential women past and present – and empowering future generations to follow their lead – with our Visible Women campaign. See more from Visible Women here.
Images: Netflix / Getty Images