This Day In Writing History
On December 14th, 1916, the famous American writer Shirley Jackson was born. She was born in San Francisco, California, to an upper-middle class family. When she was a young girl, the family moved across the country to Rochester, New York, where she later graduated from Brighton High School.
After high school, Shirley Jackson attended first the University of Rochester, then Syracuse University. While a student at Syracuse, her first published short story, Janice (1938), appeared, and through her work with the university's literary magazine, she met Stanley Edgar Hyman, who would become both a famous literary critic and her husband.
Shirley and Stanley settled down in rural Vermont and had four children - two sons and two daughters - who would become somewhat famous themselves when their mother included fictionalized versions of them in her humorous memoirs, Life Among the Savages (1953) and Raising Demons (1957). Although Shirley's literary career - and sadly, her life - would be short lived, she wrote six novels, several children's books, and numerous short stories. She would famously quip, "Fifty percent of my life was spent washing and dressing the children, cooking, washing dishes and clothes, and mending."
Shirley Jackson's first novel, The Road Through the Wall was published in 1948. Inspired by the upper-middle class California suburb that she had spent her early childhood in, the novel tells the dark stories of the people who live in a seemingly ideal community that is tearing itself apart on the inside. Meanwhile, a new road being built threatens to expose the isolated community to the outside world.
Jackson's first novel introduced her trademark prose style and fascination with the dark side of human nature. In her later novels, such as The Bird's Nest (1954) and The Sundial (1958), Jackson ventured into all out horror - stories that combined supernatural and psychological horror. This was nothing new to her. Jackson's most famous short story, The Lottery, dealt with similar themes.
The Lottery, first published in The New Yorker in 1948, told the story of a small, rural American town with a horrific secret. The story begins with the town's 300 residents acting strange and nervous, as June 27th approaches. That's when they will partake in their annual ritual, called "the lottery." In preparation for the ritual, children collect stones while the adults assemble for the event.
The reader soon learns that "the lottery" is an ancient ritual held to choose a human sacrifice to ensure a good harvest. In the first round, the head of each family chooses a slip of paper. Bill Hutchinson receives the paper with the black dot on it, so the sacrifice will come from his family. In the second round, each Hutchinson family member chooses a slip of paper. Bill's wife Tessie receives the paper with the black dot. The townspeople stone her to death while she denounces the lottery to her dying breath.
The Lottery was quite a shocker for readers in 1948, and hundreds of letters poured in to the New Yorker. Shirley described the reactions as "bewilderment, speculation and old-fashioned abuse." Some charged her with a calculated, subversive attack on American values and religious faith. The story would be republished in book form as the title story of the collection, The Lottery and Other Stories (1949). It would be adapted as an acclaimed short film in 1969, a made-for-TV feature film in 1996, and as a short film again in 2007.
Shirley Jackson's most famous novel, The Haunting of Hill House, was published in 1959. The brilliant supernatural horror story told the tale of Dr. John Montague, a parapsychologist who rents the famous and supposedly haunted Hill House for a summer. He intends to prove that the house is in fact possessed by supernatural forces. Accompanying him are two people who have already experienced supernatural phenomena. They are Theodora, a psychic, and Eleanor, a shy, troubled recluse who as a girl witnessed poltergeist activity in and around her family's home.
The haunting soon begins, and as the novel progresses, it becomes obvious that the evil forces in Hill House are intent on possessing the vulnerable Eleanor, as frightening incidents begin to erode her sanity. Dr. Montague's bossy, arrogant, and tactless wife later arrives to help her husband with his investigation, along with boys' school headmaster Arthur Parker, who is also interested in the supernatural. Will any of these people survive Hill House?
The Haunting of Hill House was adapted first as an acclaimed feature film called The Haunting in 1963, starring Julie Harris, Claire Bloom and Richard Johnson, and again in a mediocre 1999 remake starring Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta-Jones. In his 1981 non-fiction book Danse Macabre, an analysis of horror in literature, radio, film, and comics, legendary horror novelist Stephen King proclaimed The Haunting of Hill House to be one of the greatest horror novels of the late 20th century. The novel's masterful prose and power to scare can be seen in the famous opening paragraph:
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.
As Shirley Jackson's reputation grew as a horror novelist, her husband Stanley started a myth that she practiced witchcraft. This was done as a publicity stunt to sell books, but many people took it seriously. Shirley found it funny. Later, the myth gave her the idea to write The Witchcraft of Salem Village (1956), a children's book based on the Salem witch trials.
Throughout her life, Shirley suffered from mental and psychosomatic illnesses. These illnesses, and the effects of the various prescription drugs she took to treat them caused her health to decline early in life. She was also overweight and a heavy smoker. She died in her sleep of heart failure in August of 1965 at the age of 48. In 1996, a crate of Shirley Jackson's unpublished short stories was found in the barn behind her home. The best of these stories were published later that year as the short story collection, Just An Ordinary Day.
In 2007, the Shirley Jackson Award was established, with permission from her estate, to honor her literary legacy and recognize outstanding achievement in psychological suspense, horror, and dark fantasy literature.
Quote Of The Day
"I have always loved to use fear, to take it and comprehend it and make it work and consolidate a situation where I was afraid and take it whole and work from there." - Shirley Jackson
Today's video features the acclaimed 1969 short film adaptation of Shirley Jackson's classic short story, The Lottery. Enjoy!