In June 1948, The New Yorker ran a piece called ‘The Lottery’ by a writer named Shirley Jackson. This short but shocking story (spoiler alert) describes the residents of a small American village preparing for their annual lottery, an event chillingly devoid of decent prizes – it’s soon disclosed that the villagers are drawing lots to choose who among them will be stoned to death.
The response from New Yorker readers was swift, brutal and bewildered: the magazine received over 1300 letters about ‘The Lottery’, all but 13 of them negative. Many expressed outrage or disgust, but most, according to Jackson’s biographer Ruth Franklin, were ‘simply confused’ – they couldn’t understand what the piece meant. A few even wondered whether it was true, since, at the time, The New Yorker did not explicitly indicate whether the stories it published were fact or fiction; several letters questioned whether Jackson’s work actually revealed that somewhere in America, small towns full of cold-hearted pagans were regularly nominating one another for ritual execution.
Nearly seventy years later, ‘The Lottery’ is considered a masterful work of short fiction and we’re likely to find the reaction to its 1948 debut more unimaginable and bizarre than the content of the story itself. But that dark twist in the tale – what the eponymous lottery really refers to – hasn’t lost its power. The slowly dawning horror it elicits in us today probably isn’t much different to the feelings it provoked in those unsuspecting New Yorker readers back in 1948: the story’s premise seems, for all its shock value, horribly conceivable.
That sliver of conceivability is at the heart of Jackson’s writing, running like a crack through her darkest conjurings and threatening us with its promise of slim probability, a whisper of ‘what-if’ that sends a deeper shiver down our collective spine than any demon or witch. After all, what’s more horrifying than an imagined monster? We are – the evil in the everyday, and inside ourselves – is what Jackson’s tales continue bringing to our attention, offering us an altogether more unsettling view through the windows of her haunted piles.
Notwithstanding the New Yorker letters, Jackson was a popular writer in her time, publishing six novels, two memoirs, one short story collection (three more were released posthumously) and even a book for children. Her work was both commercially successful and critically well received: We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962) was named by Time magazine as one of the top 10 novels of 1962; The Haunting of Hill House (1959) was a bestseller, and made into a film in 1963; even ‘The Lottery’ was adapted for television in 1952, and Jackson continued to publish short stories in various literary magazines throughout her rather short life. She was only 48 when she passed away in her sleep in 1965, after several years of declining health, but her premature death didn’t cut short her legacy. ‘The Lottery’ has become so embedded in our cultural consciousness that it’s even mentioned in a 1992 episode of The Simpsons (‘Dog of Death’), and various writers and critics have observed that Suzanne Collins’s blockbuster YA series The Hunger Games has a familiar premise of lotteried demise to Jackson’s piece (a quick Google search even yields several high school lesson plans that teach students to compare the two texts).
But Jackson’s most famous work isn’t the only reason she’s assumed a well-deserved place in our contemporary canon. All of her novels and short story collections remain in print; two of her previously unpublished short stories appeared in issue 47 of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern (2014); one of Jackson’s sons, Laurence Jackson Hyman, mentioned in a 2013 New Yorker interview that his mother’s work has now been licensed for ballet, musical and stage adaptation. If we’re no longer scandalised by ‘The Lottery’, there’s no doubt that we still have an appetite for its macabre outcome – so what is it about Shirley Jackson’s work that makes it so timelessly chilling, and how does it fit within our cultural understanding of literary horror?
Jackson’s adult fiction has been described as gothic horror, a term we tend to associate with certain classic eighteenth and nineteenth century novels that combine atmospheric melodrama with supernatural malevolence: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), etc. But gothic horror is a slippery creature; it eludes precise definition, and monsters are not necessarily the source of its terror. According to Professor John Bowen from the University of York, gothic fiction is ‘a world of doubt … it seeks to create in our minds the possibility that there may be things beyond human power, reason and knowledge. But that possibility is constantly accompanied by uncertainty.’
For Jackson, horror is almost a side effect of a strange situation or setting – not knowing who, or why, or what, is perhaps more awful than the thing itself, which only amplifies in the face of our inability to name or define it. Whether that amplification is actual or imagined is left to conjecture; in the tradition of Victorian gothic fiction, the uncanny emerges from the familiar, and a character’s psychological state can easily match the monsters that lurk in the gloom of crumbling castles and fairy-tale forests.
Jackson’s fiction relies as much on internal unrest as external oddity, and the two continually meet to create a loop of increasing agitation and unease: her (usually female) protagonists’ fragile or peculiar psyches are shaped by their past and fed by their present (a combination of social, emotional and physical circumstances), eventually rising to a crescendo that’s sometimes violent, sometimes confounding, and always lingering at the border between this world and the next. But these stories are never overtly supernatural; instead, they’re tethered to the familiar, held in place by Jackson’s preoccupation with dysfunctional families, mental isolation and forbidding old houses; and if that third element is one we frequently associate with campfire ghost stories, the first two, at least, hold a kind of timeless terror. We might never visit a haunted house, but most of us know, or can at least imagine, the shadow cast by an unhappy home life, a sense of creeping loneliness or an inability to trust what we see and hear. And that is Jackson’s art: turning the familiar into a source of menace, dressing it up as more conventional horror before ripping off its mask.
Alongside ‘The Lottery’, Jackson’s two most famous works are The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Both give every appearance of being classic supernatural yarns: in the former, a curious doctor gathers a small group of volunteers to stay at Hill House, a huge mansion that’s stood empty for years and is assiduously avoided by the nearby townsfolk due to its creepy reputation; the latter is the story of the Blackwood family – 18-year-old Merricat, her sister Constance and their uncle Julian – who, ostracised by the local villagers, live in a remote country house until their peace is disturbed by an unexpected guest.
But there are stranger forces shaping these characters’ fates than whatever waits within the walls of their rambling homes. The unfortunate central figure in Hill House is Eleanor, a young woman who has spent the past few years caring for her now deceased mother, a role that appears to have emotionally diminished her. Timid and self-conscious, Eleanor continually crafts a fantasy life for herself – in the absence of ever having had much freedom or autonomy – and quickly forms an intense friendship with the only other young woman staying at Hill House, the loud and glamorous Theo. The disturbances at the house, which only intensify as the days go on, feel less connected to its past of familial turbulence than they do to Eleanor’s own history, and her self-professed fear of being alone: the guests are visited by the spirit of a child who calls for its mother and scrawls the words ‘HELP ELEANOR COME HOME’ on the wall in what looks like blood. None of the characters are unaffected during their stay at Hill House, but it is Eleanor – the most emotionally vulnerable, the least self-aware – who becomes its victim.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle is narrated by Merricat, whose retelling quickly reveals her to be both untrustworthy and unhinged. Most of the Blackwood family were murdered at their dinner table six years ago, and although Merricat’s older sister Constance was acquitted of the crime, the villagers remain convinced of her guilt. But the remaining Blackwoods are happy in their isolation, notwithstanding the cold reception Merricat receives when she ventures into the village each week for supplies. She uses sympathetic magic as a form of protection for herself and her surviving relatives – nailing a book to a tree and burying a box of coins in the garden are two of her safeguarding ‘spells’ – and her fixation with the hidden meaning of her various totems and beliefs (‘Thursday was my most powerful day’) gives us pause to question her sanity. That question only becomes more insistent when the Blackwoods are visited by their estranged cousin, Charles, and Merricat becomes obsessed with driving him from the house, convinced that he will disrupt the peace of the hermetic life she and her sister have made for themselves (‘I wanted to beat at him until he went away, I wanted to stamp on him after he was dead, and see him lying dead on the grass.’)
The presence of evil in both these tales isn’t in doubt – even if we’re never really sure why the sloping angles of Hill House seem to pulse with malevolent intent, that they do is incontrovertible, since all the characters witness it to some degree. But what we might find ourselves wondering is how much of the mansion’s manifestations are either entirely imagined by Eleanor, or actually conjured by her psychological unrest. Similarly, although it feels prudent to distrust Merricat, if it’s never confirmed that her little rituals and beliefs possess any power or prophecy, it’s never denied, either. The malignant ambience of both novels could easily be as much a product of its heroines’ minds as the very thing that also tips them off balance.
That same sense of psychological frailty infuses Jackson’s other four novels, which all link unstable women with some form of architectural disruption or physical displacement. In The Road Through the Wall (1948), the carefully calibrated hierarchy of a middle-class Californian neighbourhood is shaken when a road is built through a wall that has long cut off the end of one street; in Hangsaman (1951), a seventeen-year-old girl is driven almost mad by her loneliness after leaving home to attend college; in The Sundial (1954), a slightly deranged matriarch takes over the running of her late son’s huge family home and charges its residents with preparing for the imminent apocalypse; in The Bird’s Nest (1954), a shy young woman develops four different personalities, each nastier than the last, after renovations at her workplace create a hole in the wall beside her desk.
In her short fiction, too, Jackson revisits similar themes using a range of unsettling scenarios that appear, on the surface, to be grounded in ordinary reality: a woman waits for her fiancé to arrive in ‘The Daemon Lover’; a man prepares dinner for his neighbour in ‘Like Mother Used to Make’; a child is unwillingly made to share some poetry she’s written with a schoolmate and his mother in ‘Afternoon in Linen’.
But these brief glimpses Jackson affords us into other people’s unfulfilled lives carry a lingering dread, an uncomfortable sense of something not quite right. Her stories show us the unkindness of strangers, the uncertainty of selfhood, the unhappiness that breathes through the cracks of a dissatisfying daily existence. If there’s nothing overtly supernatural or monstrous about many of these sombre tales, they’re almost more horrifying for it: in the absence of any obvious otherworldly intervention, Jackson’s characters can only lay the blame for their predicaments at each other’s feet.
Or can they? There’s an element of surrealism at play in many of Jackson’s stories, but it’s so subtly performed that we’re not always sure where one reality ends and another begins – or if, in fact, we ever leave our reality at all, just as the effectiveness of Merricat’s magic could be an entirely imagined conceit. However, Jackson’s curious predilection for characters called James Harris in The Lottery and Other Stories (Farrar, Straus and Company, 1949) provides a compelling argument for the unearthly in her work. A popular Scottish ballad known variously as ‘The Daemon Lover’, ‘The House Carpenter’ and ‘James Harris’ tells the story of a man – presumably the devil in disguise – who returns to his former lover after seven years, successfully persuading her to leave her children and run away to sea with him (unsurprisingly, this ends badly for her).
Jackson’s numerous versions of James Harris don’t have to be read as demonic – he features so fleetingly in some stories, and takes on such variant characteristics (sometimes he’s old, sometimes he’s young, sometimes he’s a tall man in a blue suit) that critic Lenemaja Friedman argued that there was nothing significant about his frequent appearance. But shape-shifting feels like a suspiciously demonic trait, and when you sit that alongside Jackson’s commitment to the idea that evil lurks in the most innocuous of places, even if you don’t recognise it, her judicious placement of these various Jameses helps illustrate that point.
It seems significant that Harris’s nasty influence is most keenly felt when he doesn’t appear at all. In Jackson’s ‘The Daemon Lover’, possibly her version of the Scottish ballad, the protagonist – a woman plagued by self-doubt – spends much of the story searching for her fiance (James Harris, of course), who’s supposed to pick her up at 10am for their wedding and doesn’t show; his mysterious absence leads her into a spiralling obsession that can never be resolved.
But Jackson never lets us forget that cruelty is a human behaviour, and she illustrates this without the help of James Harris and his bag of devilish tricks. Some of her most disquieting stories have no trace of the supernatural about them, relying instead on the oddity of other people: ‘Trial by Combat’ sees a girl try awkwardly to confront the thief who’s been stealing into her apartment to break her things; ‘The Renegade’ details the miserable morning of a woman faced with the prospect of having to put down the chicken-killing family dog. Jackson is particularly good at showing the spite and petty-mindedness of certain small communities: the villages in ‘The Lottery’ and We Have Always Lived in the Castle are said to be based on North Bennington, Vermont, Jackson’s adopted hometown; the aspirational middle-class suburb of Cabrillo in The Road Through the Wall was supposedly inspired by Jackson’s actual hometown of Burlingame, California, where she grew up.
Jackson didn’t need to make monsters to create horror in her writing, although monsters are frequent literary stand-ins for humanity’s less-than-pleasant aspects: Frankenstein reminds us how dangerous it can be to play God; Dracula portrays the sexual repression of the Victorian age. Horror fiction today sometimes treads similar ground, albeit in a stylistically different way: vampires, werewolves and zombies reflect society’s present and future shortcomings back to us with curled lips and flexed claws in novels such as John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let The Right One In (2004), Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf (2011) and Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (2011).
Horror, of course, is in the eye of the beholder, and it’s also partly guided by cultural trends – just look at what Stephenie Meyer did for vampires with Twilight (whether or not you’re happy about the results is another matter entirely). Monster fiction done well can be fantastically clever and terrifying – but maybe it’s more discomfiting to see horror where it shouldn’t exist, like in our suburbs or our bedrooms or our heads.
This could be why Jackson’s work remains both popular and unique. We tend to think of horror as a genre with very specific appeal and audience; perhaps this means that we too easily oversimplify it, assuming that it must involve serial killers or supernatural beings, flights of darkly creative fancy that stretch our suspension of disbelief and make us question what lurks in the shadows rather than right in front of us. Writer and director Guillermo del Toro has observed that Jackson ‘is the perfect case of a writer associated with a genre that a substantial portion of her readers would avoid,’ since ‘her prose and poise are obliquely reminiscent of EB White, Thurber, or the spirit of The New Yorker, and yet her fierce grasp of the supernatural, her lapses into the Gothic Romance tone and trappings, and her undeniable attraction to the bizarre would have her equally at home in Weird Tales.’ Jackson tests horror’s boundaries, reaching the fingers of her twisted imagination uncomfortably far into a world that we know and recognise, showing us that what we should be most afraid of is all around us, hiding in plain sight.
The most effective kind of horror writing is timeless; it’s less about monsters and demons than about us, and Jackson’s work continues to compel because it continues to resonate, to reflect the evils inherent in our everyday reality. When The New Yorker’s fiction editor asked Jackson back in 1948 if there was anything they could tell readers who might contact the magazine following the publication of ‘The Lottery’, she replied, ‘it was just a story.’ But was it?
Image credit: Sarah