11 Famous Writers on the Genius and Influence of Shirley Jackson
"Misanthropy always goes down better with a sense of humor."
Few writers have had as much influence in as little time as Shirley Jackson, who died 54 years ago this week at the tender age of 49. Not only is the work she left behind beloved by many readers—in fact, I’d wager pretty much everyone has read her, at least That One Story—and not only is she one of my own very dear favorites, but she’s also inspired and impressed some of our best living writers, from Ottessa Moshfegh to Carmen Maria Machado to Jonathan Lethem to Stephen King. So in case you haven’t read her yet and need a little nudge, or just want to trace the web of influence outward a few notches, here are a few great writers writing on the brilliance Shirley Jackson.
Carmen Maria Machado:
When I went back home to Philly, I picked up a copy [of The Haunting of Hill House]. And I just devoured it. I read it in one sitting. I started reading one night, and when my girlfriend (now wife) went to bed I just kept reading. It scared the shit out of me. Even though the events that appear to be supernatural activity are few and far between, those scenes are so chillingly written—as if Jackson was describing a phenomenon she’d seen before and really understood. The book’s particular brand of surreality felt, to me, like that experience of walking home from a party a little bit drunk, when the world somehow seems sharper and clearer and weirder.
I hadn’t been that genuinely unnerved by a horror novel in a long time. There was just something so instinctive and eerie about the writing, and also the prose was so careful, that it just felt real in this way that was terrifying. I had to go to the bathroom when I finished the book at 3 in the morning but was too scared to get out of bed. Since then, I’ve tried to read everything else Jackson ever wrote: all her short fiction, and most of her novels.
–from Machado’s entry in Joe Fassler’s “By Heart” column, published in The Atlantic, 2017
After reading her Dark Tales, I think of these occasions of failed recognition as Shirley Jackson moments. In each story in the collection, the everyday world becomes tinted with an odd sheen of terror. My faith in the consistency of day-to-day life wanes as I read. Though Jackson often starts off rather benignly—her characters are never panicked from the get-go, but snake their way into states of dismay—she has a mystifying knack for illustrating the horrifying uncertainties around the basic laws of reality. Am I alone in doubting that things aren’t always what they seem? Upon awakening, I often ask myself, “Who am I? Where am I? What am I doing here?” and from time to time, I’ve felt that the answers were merely memorized responses, and that my reality might be an arbitrary dash of the imagination—believable, sure, but not entirely trustworthy.
This specific vulnerability—of the conscious, willful mind—is precisely what Jackson titillates and exacerbates in her stories. Identity, in particular, becomes flimsy and uncertain in her hands. In “The Beautiful Stranger,” for example, a man returns from a business trip, but is not quite sly enough to convince his wife that he’s the same person he was before he left. Similarly, in “Louisa, Please Come Home,” a runaway returns to her family after years living under an assumed name, but her parents have been so disabused by the fantasy of her return that they don’t recognize her. “What is your name, dear?” her mother asks her. It’s not quite a case of mistaken identity, but the cruel perversion of perception and memory under duress. Don’t be hypnotized by the sanctity of the superficial rhythm of humdrum life, Jackson warns, for under the surface of things, people change, sometimes irrevocably, and yet they may appear unaltered.
–from Moshfegh’s foreword to Jackson’s Dark Tales, adapted for Literary Hub, 2017
A. N. Devers:
Like so many readers, I loved and was gutted by Shirley Jackson’s famous New Yorker short story “The Lottery” from the first time I read it, and I have read it so many times since then that I don’t remember when I was first introduced to it. I was young. I have a couple of prime suspect English teachers who might have been the gift-givers. But until about nine years ago, I hadn’t read any of Shirley Jackson’s novels. I was only vaguely aware of one of them, her famous ghost story, The Haunting of Hill House.
Then I wrote a short story my MFA professor was enthusiastic about; it was full of domestic disturbance and the strange, and he assigned me to read all the Shirley Jackson I could get my hands on, which was difficult at the time, since not much was in print. So I read her collected stories, and two novels We Have Always Lived in the Castle and Hill House. I inhaled them and their contents, the cobwebs and fairy tales, the ghosts and talismans, the anxieties and fears. They are books written by a self-described witch who was also a tremendously gifted writer, and that makes them laced with a kind of special magic. I still can’t believe they aren’t better known or accepted as great American novels.
–from Devers’s essay, “The Great American Housewife Writer: A Shirley Jackson Primer,” published in Longreads, 2016
I also learned . . . the wonder of Shirley Jackson’s prose: unfussy, untricky, unhurried. Stately. Consider, please, the first paragraph (I almost called it “the celebrated first paragraph,” but I imagine Jackson, who liked adjectives, “particularly odd ones . . . the reader usually has to go and look up,” frowning at a modifier so feckless and cuttable) of The Haunting of Hill House:
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against the hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
I urge you to read that aloud, perhaps while typing it out—as I have done just now, for the pleasure of the action. Revel in the glowering “not sane” hard on the heels of the skeptical “by some,” and begin to feel yourself losing balance; tip your hat to the trio of semicolons (of which Jackson is an enthusiast, and in whose honor I have long championed them against the sneers of some writers who very much ought to know better). Note particularly that final comma—simultaneously unnecessary and essential, a fraction of a sliver of a pause in which the reader is given one final chance to put the book down and do something, anything, else—perhaps my favorite piece of punctuation in all of literature.
This is how we truly met, Shirley Jackson and I, and she’s been my steady companion since.
–from Dreyer’s essay, “Shirley Jackson and Me,” published in the Toast, 2015
The books that have profoundly scared me when I read them—made me want to sleep with the light on, made the neck hairs prickle and the goose bumps march, are few: Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, Stephen King’s It and Salem’s Lot and The Shining all scared me silly, and transformed the night into a most dangerous place. But Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House beats them all: a maleficent house, real human protagonists, everything half-seen or happening in the dark. It scared me as a teenager and it haunts me still, as does Eleanor, the girl who comes to stay.
–as told to The New York Times, 2018
I’ve probably reread The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson more than any other book. It’s not her greatest, that would be We Have Always Lived at the Castle, but I got to it when I was a teenager and so it entered my bloodstream early. I read it three or four times in high school alone.
There are lots of reasons why I love it, Jackson is an underrated literary stylist, and I love the way she loathes human beings. It’s cruel, but it’s almost always funny, too. Misanthropy always goes down better with a sense of humor. But maybe the reason I most love that book is for the house itself. Jackson does a wondrous job of animating Hill House without ever really answering the question of whether its truly haunted or merely haunted by the imagination of a lonely young woman.
–as told to Literary Hub, 2017
It is Eleanor, on whose house stones fell when she was a little girl, that [The Haunting of Hill House] is vitally concerned with, and it is the character of Eleanor and Shirley Jackson’s depiction of it that elevates The Haunting of Hill House into the ranks of the great supernatural novels—indeed, it seems to me that it and James’s The Turn of the Screw are the only two great novels of the supernatural in the last hundred years.
–from King’s discussion of Jackson’s work in Danse Macabre, 1981
Joyce Carol Oates:
Shirley Jackson is one of those highly idiosyncratic, inimitable writers whose achievement is not so broad, ambitious or so influential as the “major” writers—Melville, James, Hemingway, Faulkner—but whose work exerts an enduring spell. Her “distinguishing” achievement is probably the famous story “The Lottery”—or the excellent suspense/Gothic novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
. . .
The Lottery” is not so very different from brilliantly rendered and unsettling short stories by Edgar Allan Poe, for instance “The Tell-Tale Heart.” But it was published in The New Yorker, at that time far less than now a sort of bastion of proper middle-class/Caucasian-American values. The magazine tended to be prim, prissy, self-regarding, its tone annoyingly arch. Jackson’s story suggests that ordinary Americans—like the readers of The New Yorker, in fact—are not so very different from the lynch-mob mentality of the Nazis. Of course, Jackson’s vision of humankind is a bit simplistic and reductive, but hers is the art of radical distillation, like Flannery O’Connor, not subtly observed social drama like that of Henry James, Edith Wharton, or John Updike.
–in an interview with Rich Kelley for The Library of America, 2010
The house in The Haunting of Hill House is haunted because of what’s gone wrong between Eleanor and her mother. The book figures the feminine care that passes between daughter and mother as a kind of ourobouros succubus. Mothers caring for children, children caring for mothers, both winding up alone and with nothing more to give.
This is how a Jackson house becomes haunted. It becomes a physical representation of the domestic sphere where care lives. A house carries inside it the power of women’s disappointment and anger and fear and violence.
. . .
I think the reason I want my niece to be Shirley Jackson so badly is because I want to believe that women, especially mothers, don’t need stories about haunted houses anymore. That we are less trapped by the domestic and less silent about what goes on inside our walls. I want to believe that we can find a new governing metaphor. And I know this isn’t quite true, or that it isn’t true yet, but maybe we are just close enough in range to such a time to know to hope for it. After all, here is my sister, living in Shirley Jackson’s house, in an unwalled state of motherhood.
–in an essay, “My Niece Is Probably the Reincarnation of Shirley Jackson,” published in Literary Hub, 2019
I first encountered Shirley Jackson through a single short story, “The Daemon Lover”, which I read when I was 12 without knowing any of her other work. Later, I rediscovered the story, along with the rest of Jackson’s writing, and became a fervent admirer of this brilliant and (at that time) much underrated American author.
. . .
[The] sense of a woman’s helplessness in the face of a male-dominated society – the smooth surface and the bubbling rage – is what makes her writing so vital, so human, so prescient. Society may have changed since then, but not enough for that rage to have cooled, or for the horrors of everyday life to be any less immediate.
And yet, there is hope—well, hope of a kind. Jackson’s women may be victims, but they do fight back in their way. The struggle is often conducted beneath the social parapet—a housewife fantasizes about killing her husband; a teenage girl poisons her parents; a woman steals the family car to go on an adventure.
But it is in The Haunting of Hill House—which is, I believe, not only the best haunted-house story ever written, but also a quiet subversion of the ingénue trope in horror fiction, with a nod to Sartre’s Huis Clos with its toxic menage a trois—that we hear the challenge most clearly.
–in an essay, “Shirley Jackson centenary: a quiet, hidden rage,” published in The Guardian, 2016
Ten and twenty years ago I used to play a minor parlor trick; I wonder if it would still work. When asked my favorite writer, I’d say “Shirley Jackson,” counting on most questioners to say they’d never heard of her. At that I’d reply, with as much smugness as I could muster: “You’ve read her.” When my interlocutor expressed skepticism, I’d describe “The Lottery”—still the most widely anthologized American short story of all time, I’d bet, and certainly the most controversial, and censored, story ever to debut in The New Yorker—counting the seconds to the inevitable widening of my victim’s eyes: they’d not only read it, they could never forget it. I’d then happily take credit as a mind reader, though the trick was too easy by far. I don’t think it ever failed.
Jackson is one of American fiction’s impossible presences, too material to be called a phantom in literature’s house, too in-print to be “rediscovered,” yet hidden in plain sight. She’s both perpetually underrated and persistently mischaracterized as a writer of upscale horror, when in truth a slim minority of her works had any element of the supernatural (Henry James wrote more ghost stories). While celebrated by reviewers throughout her career, she wasn’t welcomed into any canon or school; she’s been no major critic’s fetish. Sterling in her craft, Jackson is prized by the writers who read her, yet it would be self-congratulatory to claim her as a writer’s writer. Rather, Shirley Jackson has thrived, at publication and since, as a reader’s writer.
–in an introduction to the Penguin Classics reissue of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, 2006