Shirley Jackson’s Haunted Literary Life


Shirley Jackson’s 100th birthday is today. Read on to learn more about her extraordinary work and life as a writer of tense psychological horror

"“{Y}ou 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.”(Undated letter, from Shirley Jackson to Stanley Hyman)"

If she had lived, Shirley Jackson would be one hundred years old today. Instead, she died in her sleep in 1965, at age forty-eight. Jackson was, by then, an acclaimed writer, or at the very least a fairly prosperous one. At the time of her death, she had been in the process of writing her seventh novel and had a husband and four children besides.

She left behind an extraordinary collection of work that is only recently garnering the attention it deserves. However, during her lifetime, she was a successful writer who routinely out-earned her husband, professor and literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman.

Her earning power did little to alleviate the tensions that characterized her life. Jackson died just before the beginning of second wave feminism (marked by the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in 1963). She was firmly entrenched in the mid-century roles of wife and mother, though it was clear that neither role was a comfortable fit for this innately awkward, odd woman.


Shirley Jackson (Image via Magnum Photos)

Shirley Jackson was born on December 14, 1916, in San Francisco, California. She would later claim to have been born in 1919, to conceal the fact that she was older than her husband.

Jackson came into a very comfortable life. Her father, Leslie, was a prosperous executive at the Traung Label and Lithograph Company. Thanks to a promotion, the Jacksons moved from their to Rochester, New York. Shirley was sixteen and on the verge of her senior year of high school. They took a leisurely cruise from San Francisco to New York, via the Panama Canal.

“Geraldine wanted a pretty little girl, and what she got was a lumpish redhead.”

Her mother, Geraldine, proved to be a tenacious presence throughout Jackson’s life. Geraldine, who came from an established family, cared greatly for propriety and tradition. It came as a shock to her that she produced a frumpy daughter who was more interested in art and the macabre. Joanne Hyman, Jackson’s eldest daughter, says that “Geraldine wanted a pretty little girl, and what she got was a lumpish redhead.”Franklin, Ruth. Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life (p. 24). Liveright. Kindle Edition.

Other accounts state that Geraldine often forced her daughter into formal clothes unsuited to Shirley. She even ambushed Shirley and forced her to get a permanent at a hair salon. There’s circumstantial evidence that Geraldine may have even read her daughter’s diaries. At the very least, she took part in a lifelong correspondence with Shirley, where she swung between praising her daughter’s successes and criticizing her perceived failures as an artist, housewife, and woman.

"If you don’t care what you look like or care about your appearance why don’t you do something about it for your children’s sake— and your husband’s. . . . I have been so sad all morning about what you have allowed yourself to look like. . . . You were and I guess still are a very wilful child and one who insisted on her own way in everything— good or bad.Letter from Geraldine Jackson to Shirley Jackson, 1962."


Shirley eventually graduated high school and went on to attend the University of Rochester, where Leslie and Geraldine could keep a close eye on her. There, professors were often critical of her writing. Her grades suffered. She had difficulty attending classes and effectively dropped out for a time. She eventually transferred to Syracuse University, farther from the increasingly stifling control of her parents. There, she began to flourish both artistically and socially.

At Syracuse, she met Stanley Edgar Hyman, a brilliant young man and fellow student. Both Jackson and Hyman were captivated by each other. Hyman reportedly decided to marry her after reading her short story “Janice”. Like many intelligent young men, he was prone to dismiss works he saw as lacking , but “Janice” stopped him in his tracks.

From Ruth Franklin’s excellent biography, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life: “Stanley closed the magazine demanding to know who Shirley Jackson was. He had decided, he said, to marry her.”

“Stanley closed the magazine demanding to know who Shirley Jackson was. He had decided, he said, to marry her.”

Indeed, they would marry in 1940, two years after they first met. Socially, Shirley referred to herself as Mrs. Hyman, though she published works under her maiden name.

Jackson likely saw Hyman as an escape from her mannered, suffocating background – he was a Jewish boy from New York who held exciting ideas about politics, society, and literature. He also held unconventional ideas about monogamy – mostly that he didn’t believe in it – which would eventually cause Shirley significant grief. Despite her personal misgivings, she remained outwardly aloof with regards to his affairs. Throughout their marriage, Stanley would routinely share his diary with her, which included details of his extramarital assignations.

After a brief sojourn in New York City, the couple eventually moved to North Bennington, Vermont. Hyman, who had gained a staff position at the New Yorker magazine but never earned much money from it, was to be a professor at the new Bennington College. This new women’s’ college was to be a somewhat daring experiment in higher education. The students wore pants and often went without makeup. They sometimes held raucous, libertine parties thanks to a permissive culture and faculty.

Classes were similarly informal for the time, and professors were encouraged to develop mentor-mentee relationships with their students. Despite what you may first think, Hyman apparently avoided romantic relationships with his current students. He preferred, instead, to meet with other women during trips to New York City.

Shirley with Laurence in Greenwich Village, c. 1944 (Image courtesy of Laurence Jackson Hyman)

Shirley, meanwhile, was busy trying to balance the growing demands of both her writing career and a steadily expanding family. Her first child, Laurence, was born while the couple lived in New York. The other three – Joanne, Sarah, and Barry – would soon follow.

To earn money, Jackson wrote semi-fictional accounts of her experiences as a harried mother and wife. These were collected in two volumes, Life Among the Savages (1953) and Raising Demons (1957). Geraldine clearly preferred these tales to the more overtly strange works Jackson produced. However, it also seems that she enjoyed in some small measure the acclaim earned by her daughter.

However, both collections of domestic stories contain a kind of tension centered around Jackson’s roles as mother and wife. She clearly enjoyed her children, but a close reading reveals conflict around every corner. In one story, when she arrives at the hospital to deliver her third child, a clerk asks Shirley her occupation. Jackson says “writer”. “I’ll just put down housewife,” replies the clerk.

When she arrives at the hospital to deliver her third child, a clerk asks Shirley her occupation. Jackson says “writer”. “I’ll just put down housewife,” replies the clerk.

Shirley found herself judged for her lack of proper housewifely abilities. She could be lax about cleaning and cooking, to the point where her Vermont neighbors gossiped about her messy home. Geraldine, of course, was often disappointed in her daughter’s disinterest in putting on a clean and tidy showcase.

It wasn’t for lack of trying, however. Jackson took on the lion’s share of domestic work, from cooking to childcare to husband-care. After all, Stanley was a typical mid-century husband, one who could hardly stand to wash a dish or bake a casserole. Whether or not Shirley felt inclined to do all this work, she was expected to do so. American culture of the time, and especially the small town culture of North Bennington, required married women to fulfill a wide variety of roles, from nurse to chef to teacher.

Shirley even acted as chauffeur for her family. For many years, she was the only one in the household that knew how to drive. At least she gained some satisfaction from her driving skill, which granted her a then-unprecedented level of independence. She relished the freedom promised by a car. Her unfinished novel, Come Along With Me, features a female protagonist who boldly ventures forth into the world after her husband’s death. The woman renames herself “Angela Motorman”.


Shirley Jackson in the late 1950s (Image courtesy Laurence Jackson Hyman)

Life in North Bennington was not as idyllic as either Stanley or Shirley would have wished. Though Stanley did fairly well at Bennington College and taught a wildly popular course there, Shirley lagged behind. Her writing career was picking up steam, but her social life wilted. Many of her neighbors were suspicious of these new outsiders. Quite a few were outright racists and anti-Semites. This was clearly an issue for the Hymans, as Stanley was Jewish. Shirley clearly felt the pressure of this often unspoken prejudice.

The couple also professed more progressive values that were not in line with those of the townspeople. They were close friends with Ralph Ellison, the black writer best known for the 1952 novel Invisible Man. Stanley invited Ellison to lecture at Bennington College in 1945; he remained a frequent visitor thereafter. Barry, Jackson’s youngest child, speculated that Ellison may have been the first black person some of the villagers had seen in their lives.

The subsequent isolation from her community likely helped produced Jackson’s best-known work: the short story “The Lottery”. The story, published in The New Yorker in 1948, tells of a group of villagers who plan an annual event meant to ensure a good harvest. Though the details are initially mundane, it soon becomes clear that the townspeople have a darker purpose. One of their own will be selected and then stoned to death by their neighbors.

Barry, Jackson’s youngest child, speculated that Ellison may have been the first black person some of the villagers had seen in their lives.

The story was so shocking to readers that The New Yorker received nearly 100 letters in the first month following its publication. More would follow. In fact, the dark, deeply divisive story would shadow Shirley through the rest of her career. Jackson, taking a kind of dark delight in the reaction, kept some of the letters in a scrapbook. Some were complimentary; others said that she was “perverted” or had “incredibly bad taste”.

All of this helped to bolster her strange, witchy reputation. Shirley reputed to be a practicing witch, though there’s little evidence that her interest in the occult extended to sincere religious belief. After the publication of “The Lottery” and other works such as The Haunting of Hill House, critics often said that she wrote “not with a pen but a broomstick”. Another critic referred to her as “Virginia Werewolf”.

There were even rumors that she caused an unfriendly publisher to break his leg in a skiing accident, despite the fact that she was quietly ensconced within her small town and nowhere near the ski slopes. At the very least, she did little to discourage such gossip.

Eventually, she grew to practically hate “The Lottery” for it ubiquitousness, but its publication was a major step forward in her career. Seemingly overnight, critics and readers throughout the country knew of her. Certainly, after reading it, it’s difficult to think of Shirley Jackson as anything other than a major literary figure.

As in many of her other works, “The Lottery” lays bare the sinister aspects of American life, from conformity to a frightening bloodthirst that, according to Jackson, lies just beneath the surface of every town and every smiling face.


Hill House, from the 1963 film adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House (Image via Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

Though Shirley professed not to care about Stanley’s affairs, the sadness and tension of it all manifested in other unspoken ways. She often suffered from illnesses and headaches that increased as she grew older. Later, as her fame grew and neighbors and critics alike drew their focus to her, she became more ill.

For a period of time late in her life, she suffered greatly from agoraphobia and was unable to leave her home. It was only with the help of pills and therapy that she was able to undertake a simple trip to the post office.

She often self-medicated in other ways as well. Jackson and Hyman both drank rather heavily by modern standards. That said, they were not necessarily lushes in the context of the 1950s and 1960s. Both also enjoyed smoking and rich foods, habits which likely led to their early deaths (Stanley only survived Shirley by five years).

It was only with the help of pills and therapy that she was able to undertake a simple trip to the post office.

Still, mental illness was a major influence throughout Shirley’s life. In light of her growing agoraphobia, houses became especially menacing. They always were for Jackson, to some extent. In The Sundial (1958), an unpleasant group of people await the apocalypse in a gigantic mansion, whose grounds and buildings sometimes appear as their own characters. Though the novel is darkly humorous, the sprawling estate often rears its menacing head. The world beyond its gates is hardly more welcoming.

This was certainly the case in The Haunting of Hill House (1959), one of her best-known works. Hill House is an entity in its own right and receives just as much attention and characterization as any of the novel’s human characters. The culmination of this lifelong idea is laid out in the very first paragraph of The Haunting of Hill House, which Stephen King claims is one of the best opening paragraphs in modern literature:

"No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone."

Slowly, agonizingly, Shirley began to emerge from her agoraphobia. It became easier for her to attend writing conferences and workshops, which had become a particularly favorite event as she gained renown. Surprisingly, she barred Stanley from attending with her. Shirley went alone to a conference in Suffield, Connecticut, because “it is now one of the only places where i feel i have a personality and a pride of my own, and i cannot see that go, too, under your mockery.”

She even began to tentatively plan a divorce from Stanley. In an undated letter apparently never shown to Stanley, she outlined her reasons for leaving him. She especially smarted at the joy he took in his academic life. “i see how you change from your usual glum preoccupied personality at home, change during the short space of the ride up to college, into someone eager and happy and excited, almost unable to wait until you can get into the world you love.”

Perhaps Shirley wanted something like that love, that joy and excitement, for herself.


Shirley Jackson (Image courtesy Laurence Jackson Hyman)

"“Remember that there is only a moment of shadow between your life and mine,” Death tells the guests as he bids them farewell. “And when I call, come bravely through that shadow. You will find me only, your familiar friend.”Quote from the film Death Takes a Holiday (1934). The film appealed to a young Shirley Jackson, then on the verge of graduating from high school. Excerpted from Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life."

Shirley may have seen her own death approaching. Everyone else was certainly surprised by her end. She had gone to an upstairs bedroom to nap in the August heat and simply never woken up. Her heart had failed.

Yet, in the months leading up to her death, she seemed changed to her friends. She visited some unexpectedly, with generous gifts. Jackson appeared to be unusually relaxed and happy in the wake of her recent victories against paranoia and other illnesses. She sent a strange letter to literary agent Carl Brandt, in which she talked vaguely of leaving on a “wonderful journey” alone.

“if i am cured and well and oh glorious alive then my books should be different”

Of course, it is possible that she was feeling the kind of exhilaration that comes with emerging health. In her diary, she wrote “if i am cured and well and oh glorious alive then my books should be different”, perhaps referencing a final triumph over the illnesses, mental and physical, that had plagued her.

She may even have been finally moving towards divorce from Stanley; though their intellectual partnership had been fruitful, it was clear that both he and the demands of family life were reaching a breaking point within Shirley.

We won’t know, either way. Perhaps Jackson would have finished her novel, divorced Stanley, and moved into a new, more independent chapter of her life. Perhaps she would have stayed.

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The truth of the matter is that she died quietly and yet somehow left a massive crater in both her personal circle and the literary world itself. What she would have been, could have been, is now only a matter of speculation. We have only her legacy and her work, which illustrates a dark, deeply complex woman and her astonishing literary talent.