by William Weger
Shirley Jackson has in recent years enjoyed a revival of sorts. Some might say she has become a literary pop icon. Her brilliant and absorbing short stories, novels, essays, and letters are deservedly in the spotlight more than a half century since her untimely death of heart failure on August 8, 1965. She was just 48 years old.
At the time, Jackson was working on a new novel, Come Along with Me, that she never finished. It was published posthumously in 1968 in a collection of her works that included the famous and controversial short story, The Lottery, first published in The New Yorker in 1948. The eerie tale centers on residents of an American village who partake in an annual ritual of stoning to death a person chosen through a lottery. The Lottery, which triggered an onslaught of mail to The New Yorker in response, is still widely read and critiqued.
In Come Along with Me, Jackson strayed from her usual haunting tone to write a more uplifting, happy story about a widowed woman who abandons her old name and begins a new life in a boarding house. Jackson’s writings often reflect the loneliness and isolation that many women, especially married women, struggled with in the 1960s. In Jackson’s final novel, perhaps she was saying that like the main character, Angela Motorman, that she didn’t want to be lonely anymore. She wanted to begin a new chapter in her life and career.
We don’t know where the novel and author’s life would have taken us. But decades later, we have finally “come along” with Jackson in a rebirth. For years, Jackson’s works were showered with criticism much like the stones cast upon Tessie Hutchinson in The Lottery. One critic claimed Jackson wrote with a broomstick instead of a pen. In reality, Jackson used a trusty typewriter for her craft.
Jackson’s early reputation as a Queen of Gothic Horror and odd fiction underestimated the range of her talents as a professional writer, although it’s clear readers were attracted to her works in part for their weird, supernatural flavor. The author’s bio on the dust jacket of her first book published in 1948, The Road Through the Wall, describes her as “perhaps the only contemporary author who is a practicing amateur witch, specializing in small-scale black magic and fortune telling with a tarot deck.”
But remember, many readers, particularly woman, appreciate Jackson’s humor and the pieces she wrote about her ordinary domestic life as a wife and mother of four children. She wrote for Good Housekeeping, Woman’s Day, and other magazines. Two Jackson memoirs, Life Among the Savages (1953), and a sequel, Raising Demons (1957), are hilarious exposes on the domestic side of life in rural Vermont.
Jackson is no longer ignored, and we now walk alongside her in all the fabulous new films and literary releases that celebrate her life and splendid works. The wave of new interest in her life and works is quite impressive. These latest entries are referenced works for this essay.
In 2021, The Letters of Shirley Jackson, compiled and edited by her elder son, Laurence Jackson Hyman, were published by Random House. This charming collection of correspondence showcases Jackson’s range of literary gifts with snippets of horror and humor that makes us shiver and laugh.
In 2020, Jackson was the inspiration for Shirley, a movie starring Elizabeth Moss as Jackson herself. This fictionalized portrayal of Jackson’s life weaves elements of her work into a story written by Susan Scarf Merrell.
Franklin delves into Jackson’s duel life as both a professional writer and as an American woman living during the post-war period who struggles with an often troubled marriage, health issues, anxiety, and agoraphobia that at times left the author unable to leave the house. Franklin notes that Jackson turned to amphetamines in an attempt to lose weight and tranquilizers and other prescription drugs to relieve anxiety. She was also a heavy smoker.
In 2016, Ruth Franklin’s insightful biography, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, painted a much fuller, sympathetic picture of the author, her life, and works. Published by W.W. Norton and Company, the fascinating biography won multiple awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography and was named a New York Times Notable Book of 2016.
Franklin delves into Jackson’s duel life as both a professional writer and as an American woman living during the post-war period who struggles with an often troubled marriage, alcoholism, addiction to amphetamines, and tranquilizers. Jackson also suffered from anxiety and agoraphobia that left her unable to leave the house for periods.
Although Jackson lived most of her life in Vermont, she was born in San Francisco on December 14, 1916 and spent her childhood in Burlingame, an affluent nearby suburb in California. The family later moved East to New York and Jackson attended the University of Rochester, but withdrew. A year later she entered Syracuse University, where she published her first short story, Janice, and became a fiction editor for a campus magazine. She graduated with a degree in journalism. She won a poetry contest at the university and met her future husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, there. The couple married in 1940, initially living in New York’s Greenwhich Village. In 1945, Hyman accepted a teaching position at Bennington College in Vermont.
Today, Jackson’s best works are mentioned in the same breath as Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry James. Her influence is far reaching. Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, and Neil Gaiman are big Jackson fans.
So the next voice you might hear is Shirley Jackson, inviting you to come along with her. The Shirley Jackson renaissance is likely only just beginning.
William Weger is a regular contributor to Books & Bards. A writer, former journalist, and author of Marshmallows over Manhattan and Inspire Good: Nonprofit Marketing for a Better World. He is the founder of Books & Bards and Clearfont Media.