In horror literature, Shirley Jackson would certainly rate as one of the four on its creepy Rushmore. Born in California, Jackson moved to the East Coast when she was seventeen years old and attended Syracuse University. There she met her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, who would later become a critic and writer for The New Yorker. Jackson experienced almost immediate success with her short stories and had the first of her two children. They lived in New York for a time and then moved to Bennington, Vermont, in 1945 when Hyman was offered a job at Bennington College.
There they rented an old rented Victorian home that appears to have been haunted. Jackson said that at first they weren’t accepted in the town, and when she tried to have work done on the house, painters, plumbers, carpenters, and such wouldn’t come out once they found out she lived in “the old Ogilvie house.” Even her groceries would be dropped off at the end of the lawn because the delivery boy didn’t want to come close to the house. Jackson said, though, that she and her family adapted to the ghostly presence.
“Once, a little round rug disappeared for almost a week from the study, as though it had been absorbed into the floor, and reappeared after a while looking the same as ever, and so natural that for a while we forgot to be surprised that it was there. Several times I left groceries on the kitchen table and found them later neatly put away in the pantry; one reason I am sure I do not do this myself in a sort of trance is that the refrigerator is never used—butter and milk and such are set on the pantry windowsill, where it is cool. Once, buttons appeared, newly sewn onto my son’s jacket, and another time my daughter’s stuffed lamb had a blue ribbon removed and a pink one substituted. A day or so later the blue ribbon was back, washed and ironed,” Jackson writes in her essay “Good Old House.”
This is the same house where she wrote “The Lottery,” which appeared in 1948, the short story that made her both famous and hated in the United States. “I have been assured over and over that if it had been the only story I ever wrote or published, there would be people who would not forget my name,” said Jackson. “Of the three-hundred-odd letters that I received that summer I can count only thirteen that spoke kindly to me, and they were mostly from friends. Even my mother scolded me.”
Her son Laurence Jackson Hyman, who helped edit Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings by Shirley Jackson along with his sister, said, “My mother wrote often about alienation and withdrawal, fear, phobia, disassociation and paranoia, in ways that often leave the reader uncertain as to whether things are real or imagined. She created one of the most famous ghost stories of the twentieth century—The Haunting of Hill House—without revealing any ghosts at all. In We Have Always Lived in the Castle and many of her stories, she gives us narrators so obviously unreliable that the reader has to decide for himself what to believe.”
He dissects her unnerving style, a huge influence on Stephen King, saying, “Shirley would typically present scenes of seeming tranquility, whether in the city or the country, and then would go on to find, as one of her stories puts it, ‘The Possibility of Evil’ within her characters, and sometimes within buildings and other inanimate objects.”
Though Jackson wrote every day, she also was the mother of four children and did a lot of housework. This is where she would start weaving her stories, while caught in the boring cycle of laundry and cleaning. “All the time that I am making beds and doing dishes and driving to town for dancing shoes, I am telling myself stories. Stories about anything, anything at all. Just stories. After all, who can vacuum a room and concentrate on it? I tell myself stories. I have a whopper of a story about the laundry basket that I can’t tell now, and stories about the missing socks, and stories about the kitchen appliances and the wastebaskets and the bushes on the road to the school, and just about everything. They keep me working, my stories,” said Jackson.
Writer Joan Schenkar was a student of Jackson’s husband and came frequently to the house for dinners, though she never stayed all the way through one, finding its atmosphere too tense and uncomfortable. “The first thing you heard about Shirley Jackson was that she was a witch. Shirley tacitly encouraged this rumor, although the evidence supporting it would have been admissible only in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. Shirley had written a book about witchcraft; she was known to ‘read’ Tarot cards; she inserted into her exquisitely written fictions quotations from her large collection of grimoires and magic books; and she gave to some of her many cats—eleven cats! they must be her familiars!—the names of the dukes and demons of hell,” said Schenkar.
It was in what some might see as the mundane details of daily living that Jackson found the material for her stories. She said, “I cannot find any patience for those people who believe that you start writing when you sit down at your desk and pick up your pen and finish writing when you put down your pen again; a writer is always writing, seeing everything through a thin mist of words, fitting swift little descriptions to everything he sees, always noticing. Just as I believe that a painter cannot sit down to his morning coffee without noticing what color it is, so a writer cannot see an odd little gesture without putting a verbal description to it, and ought never to let a moment go by undescribed.”
Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings by Shirley Jackson