With Netflix’s hit series The Haunting of Hill House and the biographical drama Shirley having both made a big splash in the entertainment industry in the recent years, writer Shirley Jackson made quite the comeback. We speak to lecturer and Shirley Jackson expert, Bernice M Murphy, about some surprising aspects of her fascinating life
1. Stephen King is a huge fan
Horror writers are often asked about their favourite horror novels and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House usually makes it to the top fives or tens. Stephen King is no exception. In his novel Danse Macabre he is incredibly effusive of Miss Jackson’s most famous novel and admits that The Shining owes a lot to it.
2. Ahead of the game
There’s a famous quote that’s often attributed to Jackson which is “I delight in what I fear”—there was something that fascinated and troubled her about the macabre. When it comes to gothic fiction, it became a really good way for Jackson to explore the tensions and the contradictions that were at the heart of life for many middle-class women during the 1970s, and the pressures put on them by society and their own families. It informed a certain model of behaviour. Her second and third novels are about young women in their twenties, who essentially have these psychiatric crises which are brought about by the fact that society has very definite expectations of how young women are supposed to behave.
“The reason Jackson is this pioneering author is that, usually in the horror genre, when women are a threat, it’s because they’re taken over by some terrifying external threat and it’s not really their fault. So they might be like Carrie and have psychic powers and kill a load of people because their mother is terrible, or if they’re a Japanese horror film character they’ve been murdered in a well.
“I think it’s actually more interesting when you have female characters acting out—particularly against their families—in a non-supernatural way and I think Jackson directly influenced later films of this type. Part of the reason why she is so big at the moment is that there have been a lot of great horror films directed by women lately and she anticipated a lot of it. That’s why her work still seems quite timeless and fresh; she was ahead of the game, really,” says Bernice.
3. She was often considered a “housewife writer”
While she is now best known as a writer of disturbing gothic fiction, back in the 1950s Jackson had a whole parallel career writing funny, lively stories about her kids. Her own family was one of the most commonly tapped into topics of her work and she wrote two bestselling volumes of family stories that’s often described as “domestic humour”.
“I hate this term myself but it’s sometimes suggested today that she’s the forerunner to the ‘mummy bloggers’ of today. She wrote witty and funny tales about the pleasures and frustrations of being a busy mother and a housewife, and she had four young kids in the 1950s. She also wrote a lot for women’s magazines so I think critics, particularly at the time when academia was still very male dominated, didn’t know what to make or her,” says Bernice.
A fuller, richer appreciation of Jackson only started to emerge in the 1980s when feminist critics started to look at her entire oeuvre, and over the last five to ten years she’s really had a massive comeback.
4. A jolly character
From her biographies and letters that she wrote, we can get a good sense of what Jackson was like as a person and, perhaps, somewhat surprisingly, considering the disturbing nature of her work, she was a very jolly and sociable one who loved to feed and entertain people.
“She’s very dryly funny, she tends to be very self-deprecating. A lot of her letters are absolutely hilarious. And then the letters to her agents are fascinating because she was very savvy, very much in charge of her own career, she had a very clear sense of what she wanted and what she didn’t want, and she was actively managing her career. She was an incredibly competent woman who was spinning many plates at once,” says Bernice.
It’s widely known that her later years, especially her forties, were filled with a lot of unhappiness; she struggled greatly with agoraphobia, powerful social anxiety and panic attacks, and it was something that she worked into her fiction as well.
“I think her fiction was often quite cathartic for her, she did have very real struggles but she was very brazen and faced them head on. But I don’t want to posit Jackson as some tragic figure, it’s quite unfair to her and it’s quite a shallow way of thinking about her, but she did have difficult times there’s no doubt about it.” adds Bernice.
5. The Lottery
You’ve probably heard of The Haunting of Hill House many times by now, but if you’re after a short taster with Jackson, you should familiarise yourself with one of her most famous short stories, and one of the most notorious American short stories of the 20th century, The Lottery, according to Bernice.
“It’s about a small town in New England that gathers every June 27 for a certain ritual. I won’t say anymore but folk horror is really big at the moment and I think you could make an argument that The Lottery is actually a pioneering form of American folk horror. The story has a really famous twist in it, and I’ve come across lots of US students who were forced to read it in high school and are still slightly traumatised,” says Bernice.
Bernice M Murphy is Lecturer in Popular Literature in the School of English, Trinity College, Dublin. She has published extensively on topics related to horror fiction and film, and is an expert on Shirley Jackson who edited the first ever essay collection on her work, Shirley Jackson: A Literary Legacy (2005)
Catch her online talk The World Is Full of Terrible People: Shirley Jackson And Female Violence on January 12. For tickets, visit miskatonicinstitute.com
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