When Shirley Jackson died of heart failure in 1965, at the age of 48, obituaries described her as a popular writer of horror fiction, and especially as the author of “The Lottery,” a short story that had stunned New Yorker readers in 1948 with its deadpan account of a stoning ritual in New England. During her lifetime, Jackson’s offbeat novels, combined with her fascination with witchcraft, ghosts and haunted houses, made her a difficult figure for reviewers to place. One said she wrote “with a broomstick” instead of a pen; another called her “a kind of Virginia Werewoolf.” Today, despite praise from writers including Stephen King and the support of Joyce Carol Oates, who has edited a volume of her work for the Library of America, Jackson is still underrated and excluded from the literary canon.
But that is about to change. Ruth Franklin’s sympathetic and masterful biography both uncovers Jackson’s secret and haunting life and repositions her as a major artist whose fiction so uncannily channeled women’s nightmares and contradictions that it is “nothing less than the secret history of American women of her era.” Jackson wrote in two distinct genres, domestic comedy and psychological terror. In her lucrative mass-market fiction for women’s magazines, she described the comic life of a besieged housewife raising four boisterous children in a messy old house in Vermont. In her novels and New Yorker stories, she crafted a sophisticated version of the female Gothic, in which houses became metaphors for women trapped in claustrophobic prisons of maternity and dependency, and prey to hysteria, madness and supernatural invasion.
Franklin sees these themes as “profoundly interconnected” — different versions of women’s tensions in the 1950s when they were expected to express all their creative energies in housewifery. Jackson’s interest in the Salem witch trials, which she analyzed in a children’s book, also displayed her understanding that witchcraft offered a way of “channeling female power at a time when women in America often had little control over their lives.”
Franklin traces Jackson’s rebellion against the suffocating feminine mystique to a mother who badgered her about her weight, opposed her literary ambitions and later disparaged her fiction about “demented girls.” When Jackson’s last novel, “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” (1962) was published to the best reviews of her career, she basked in the glorious moment of recognition and validation, until her mother wrote to complain about her unflattering photograph in Time: “Why oh why do you allow the magazines to print such awful pictures of you? . . . I have been so sad all morning about what you have allowed yourself to look like.” Jackson wrote a furious reply, “I have considerable stature in my profession, and if I decide to make any changes in my manner of living, it will not be because you have nagged me into it.” But she never sent the letter; she stifled her anger instead and internalized her pain in an attack of agoraphobia that kept her housebound for six months.
Jackson had escaped her mother in an early marriage to Stanley Edgar Hyman, a brilliant and contentious Jewish intellectual she met at Syracuse University (she did not invite her parents to the wedding). But Hyman turned out to be one of the top 10 hostile husbands in American literary history: exploitative, bullying, controlling and selfish. He recognized her talent and encouraged her writing — as well he should, since her income kept them going for years — but he also kept her insecure and subordinate by flaunting his affairs with thinner women, pressuring her to write commercially salable stories, saddling her with the sole care of the house and the children (he helpfully bought her a dishwasher to increase her productivity). Jackson accepted his infidelities and his sense of entitlement, and blamed herself for being fat and lazy.
When he got a job as a professor at Bennington, she became a supportive faculty wife and a tireless, inspired hostess for his friends and colleagues. But she felt like an outsider and freak in the small Vermont village where they bought an enormous, ramshackle old house. The racism and anti-Semitism of the conservative community showed up in many of her stories, along with cold mothers, matricidal daughters and vain, cruel husbands.
Behind her cheery masks, Jackson was hiding an angry, vengeful self, dreaming of divorce and flight to a place where she could be alone and write. As the stress of managing her domestic role and her own work multiplied, and as the marriage became unbearable, she became morbidly obese. She was also a heavy smoker, an alcoholic and an addict of amphetamines, tranquillizers and other prescription drugs. In her last months, her agoraphobia became so severe that she was unable to leave her room.
Yet she never stopped writing. Drawing on journals, diaries and unpublished fiction, Franklin builds up to an explosive ending, as Jackson recorded lurid nightmares, plotted murderous fantasies and planned her escape to “that great golden world outside” in which she would be independent and free. “Writing is the way out,” she told herself in those psychologically tumultuous years. Writing with growing power, discipline and control, she produced her two greatest novels, “The Haunting of Hill House” (1959) and “We Have Always Lived in the Castle.” They are the places to start discovering the genius of Shirley Jackson, revived and revealed in this fine biography.
Elaine Showalter is a professor emerita of English at Princeton University.
By Ruth Franklin
Liveright. 624 pp. $35