Is Shirley Jackson the most underrated writer of the 20th century?
Shirley Jackson, who was born 100 years ago this month and died in her sleep one summer afternoon at the age of 48, has often been called the most underrated writer of the 20th century.
She’s not so underrated anymore. Among her fans are Joyce Carol Oates, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King and Donna Tartt; her work is being reissued by Penguin Classics; and a major biography by Ruth Franklin, A Rather Haunted Life, has just been published.
And Jackson wasn’t entirely overlooked in her time, either. Dylan Thomas admired The Lottery, her most infamous tale. Dorothy Parker rated her, Sylvia Plath envied her. The New Yorker published dozens of her short stories. Her humorous housewife memoirs were bestsellers, and so was her strange last novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Her ghost novella, The Haunting of Hill House, sold well enough to pay off the mortgage, and the film rights went to the man who would go on to direct West Side Story and The Sound of Music. She was, at any rate, too successful to suit her husband, a serious critic — of Jackson as well as literature.
In what sense, then, was she underappreciated? Jackson wrote in many veins — “in general behaving like a novelist who needs money,” she said — and some readers found her hard to categorise. There was also snobbery about genres that involved murders or ghosts, and condescension towards women writers — in particular towards a About the book DarkTales woman who wrote amusingly about bringing up four children, and was not very attractive.
But perhaps there was something more profoundly uncomfortable about her work. Ruth Franklin likens Jackson to her character Adela Strangeworth, an old lady who sends frightening anonymous messages to her fellow villagers. (That story, The Possibility of Evil, is published in Dark Tales, a new volume of her uncollected work.) Jackson dispensed difficult truths about modern life, argues Franklin — “literary bombs” sent “unerringly to their targets”. In the process, Jackson wrote “the secret history of American women of her era”.
The fact that Jackson tends to be situated within the American Gothic tradition derives in part from The Haunting of Hill House. But is that book really a ghost story, or is it a novel about social exclusion? It even contains a joke which seems to play with the question: “Poltergeists are rock bottom on the supernatural social scale.”
The idiom of Hill House may be gothic, but that aspect of it is almost a parody — more Young Frankenstein than Henry James — and there’s a storybook silliness to some of the diction. Once you get past those elements, the actual events in the novel can be read without any inflection of the supernatural at all. The plot might simply be this: take a lonely, traumatised person, put her in a group that welcomes her at first, then begins to treat her as an outcast, and see what happens to her mind.
A character, or a person, needn’t be natively distraught in order to become so by circumstance. Much in Franklin’s account of Jackson’s own life would have driven any sane person over the edge: her mother’s brutal disappointment in her; her husband’s flagrant infidelities (he wrote to Jackson about his “ridiculous transcendental groin”, and it is said that he thought female protest “simply foreplay”); her persecution by neighbours in Vermont, when her windows were vandalised with swastikas after she attempted to defend her daughter against a teacher who was whipping her.
In The Haunting at Hill House, written after this incident, villagers are said to have “hated a girl to death”. In her final novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which Jackson wrote while in the depths of her agoraphobia, two murder-suspect sisters shut themselves up in the remains of their home.
The Lottery, Jackson’s famous story in which cheerful villagers hold an annual ritual eventually revealed to be a stoning to death, is, in the words of Joyce Carol Oates, “one of the classic works of American gothic literature”. There is a whiff of the Salem witch trials in The Lottery, but its tone is a long way from, say, the work of Edgar Allan Poe. It has a sort of waylaid realism to it. Among the unprecedented number of letters and cancelled subscriptions The New Yorker received when the story was published in 1948, many correspondents were characterised by Jackson as wishing to know “where these lotteries were held, and whether they could go there and watch”.
As Franklin suggests, many of Jackson’s stories — the deadliest bombs, if not the loudest — are threaded through with the ironies of the feminine condition. Whether the heroine kills her husband, mourns him in a way that suggests she might have, or just fantasises about him lying with “his head bashed in”, there is a continuity about the trap in which these women find themselves. The stories are like miniature revenge tragedies, rekindled or recast, and effective by attrition.
If there is such a thing as “Jackson Gothic”, it’s familial rather than supernatural. “Terror” and “horror” are words that crop up often, but only in domestic settings — at the breakfast table, or when a character realises she’s forgotten to change the sheets. Jackson always said The Lottery came to her when she was pushing her daughter home in the stroller.
Jackson could be wonderfully tart. She had a gift for the ironic subclause (“the only person in the world she genuinely hated, now that her mother was dead, was her sister”); a wry way with adverbs (“she thought inadequately”, “she looked at him speculatively”, “she waved her hand largely”); and a knack for opening gambits (“I’m in lingerie, what are you in?”).
Best work’s trait: unease
Beyond that, in her best stories, there is an unplaceable unease. Jackson evokes social or emotional armour with great skill. Snobbery is rife, and stories are often told from the point of view of the conformist — the person who fails to see what the story shows us. Teenagers (those priestesses of estrangement) feature frequently, and are never seen for who they really are.
“She does not much like the sort of neurotic modern fiction she herself writes, the Joyce and Kafka schools,” Jackson’s husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, wrote of her. That may have been true, though given some of Jackson’s vicious sarcasm about her husband’s work as a literary critic, it’s hard to know. She herself acknowledged that “all my books laid end to end would be one long documentation of anxiety”.
Hyman found her dead on August 8, 1965, around the time she would have woken up from her afternoon nap. As Franklin documents, she had been addicted to prescription drugs — uppers and downers — for years, and was a heavy drinker. Friends later suggested she’d had a “premonition” of her death, and she sent her agent a letter referring to a mysterious journey she was planning to take alone. But Franklin doesn’t explicitly wonder whether Jackson committed suicide, and, as Oates points out, it wasn’t spoken of at the time. The official cause of death — after a cursory inquest — was heart attack.
Accident or overdose aside, even the predictably spooky idea of a premonition seems to go on ignoring what Jackson had said all along about the cruelties and entrapments of everyday life. If we can say anything for sure, it’s that she died of what she had described.
by Ruth Franklin is published by Liveright (£25).
by Shirley Jackson is published by Penguin Classics (£9.99).