……would have celebrated her centennial birthday last week, on December 14, had she not passed away in 1965. Cited as an important influence by Stephen King, Joanne Harris, Neil Gaiman and many others, Shirley Jackson wrote story upon story that left her readers unsettled and haunted with the ambiguity within her words.
I’ve been reading her work from an early age, most notably The Haunting of Hill House (1959), which ranks as my personal favorite of her fiction, topping We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), The Lottery (1948), and Hangsaman (1951). Her non-fiction, Raising Demons and Life Among the Savages recounts life at home, her children and the various ‘adventures’ they encounter. Her deliciously dark wit and humor are in full display in those tomes, and I highly recommend reading them.
Reading her fiction is a fascinating experience – for me, I start to notice a physiological reaction to her prose. In reading Hangsaman, I felt a low level anxiety in following Natalie’s thoughts and interactions as she left home for college. There was also that sense of foreboding, the shadow of unknown dynamics at play, and feeling suffocated by Natalie’s fellow students. There is the sense that she is at the bottom of the totem pole in the social hierarchy.
Every time I read The Haunting of Hill House, I root for Eleanor to overcome her insecurities, to let go of her guilt and to embrace her newfound freedom, both from her family and from Hill House itself. I feel her anxieties and hurts and indignations as if they were my own. But the story never changes, no matter how many times I read it and wish otherwise – Eleanor’s fate is already written and acted out, before one even picks up the book.
Shirley Jackson knew how to invite one in to her stories, knew exactly how to hook and keep you in it until the last word. She allowed the story to envelope you, insinuate itself into your imagination, haunting you long after you had shut the book and put it down. Her prose is quiet and engaging, simple, yet complex.
She is, for me, one of the writers I wish most to emulate, using my own voice and skills to strike that same haunting and sparse tone.
On the year of her one hundredth birthday, I join the ranks of writers who find inspiration in her work. I continually marvel at her ability to bring the darkness of every day life into the light and the suffocating spiral of ambiguity and uncertainty infused in her characters.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
The Lottery & Other Stories by Shirley Jackson
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson