10 Facts About Shirley Jackson's Life (And Death) That Will Fascinate Fans Of The Horror Master
The Shining, Dracula, Coraline, Rosemary's Baby — everyone has their favorite horror novel, but how much do you know about the authors behind the tales of terror that keep you up all night? Thanks to Ruth Franklin's stunning, in-depth biography, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life (Sept. 27), you can learn all of the things you didn't know about Shirley Jackson, the often underrated and overlooked author who may finally be getting her much deserved place in the literary canon.
Best known for her shocking 1948 New Yorker story "The Lottery," a detailed and deadpan description of a small New England town who participates in an annual stoning of one of it's community members, Shirley Jackson has always been somewhat of an enigma to literary critics and readers alike. The author of both chilling tales of horror, like Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and mass-market fiction written for magazines like Good Housekeeping, Mademoiselle, and Woman's Day, Jackson rarely granted interviews or spoke about her work, building her up to be something of a mysterious literary figure during her life and even in her death. Luckily for modern readers, there is one person who has seemed to get to the bottom of the mystifying woman and her writing: Ruth Franklin.
Using Jackson's writing, both fiction and nonfiction, and other primary source materials such as diaries, letters, and essays, Franklin's remarkable biography, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life , takes a deep dive into the author's life, from her childhood to her death, illuminating Jackson as a not only a writer, but a daughter and a mother, a friend and a wife, and a woman of her time. So, just in time for the Halloween season, here are 10 things you probably didn't know about Shirley Jackson from her new biography — some things that are just as haunting as the author's stories themselves.
1. Jackson's relationship with her mother was complicated.
From the time she was a young child to her death — she outlived both of her parents — Shirley Jackson was ever at odds with her mother. Whether her mom disagreed with the way she dressed or combed her hair, her interest in the occult or her curiosity in communism, her choice in career and her eventual husband, Jackson's mother, Geraldine, would spend most of her daughter's life criticizing her, despite her high levels of literary success.
After We Have Always Lived in the Castle was reviewed in Time, a publication that praised the novel for "manag[ing] the ironic miracle of convincing the reader that a house inhabited by a lunatic, a poisoner and a pyromaniac is a world more rich in sympathy, love and subtlety than the real world," Geraldine wrote to her daughter about the article. Instead of congratulating her on her success, she criticized her daughter's appearance in the accompanying photo, stating "If you don't care what you look like or care about your appearance, why don't you do something about it for your children's sake, for your husband's sake.... I have been so sad all morning about what you have allowed yourself to look like..."
And you thought your mother was bad.
2. She kept multiple diaries — in multiple voices.
"Today, I shall write. I feel it. I shall write of the great joys of living."
Many writers keep diaries throughout their lives, and Jackson is no exception, but they style in which she did it is unusual. Instead of keeping one journal, Jackson wrote in multiple diaries simultaneously, sometimes even in the same day.
In one diary, Jackson wrote in the "aw-shucks tone of an all-American girl," explains Franklin, frequently commenting on her hobbies, her social life, her arguments with her mother, and her favorite movies and songs of the time. In a separate diary, one kept at the same time, Jackson wrote exclusively in the form of love letters to an older boy at her school, Harold "Bud" Young, with whom she had a crush on. In this journal, she wrote
In writing in these varied journals, Franklin argues, Jackson was "trying on different personas, figuring out what fit and what did not," something she would continue to explore throughout her lifetime.
3. She treated her moods like personas, and even named them.
Not only did Jackson keep multiple diaries, each with their own style and voice, but she also kept her moods separated and distinct from one another, giving them each a persona of their own. Much like her novel The Bird's Nest, a book featuring a woman's mind fracturing into multiple personalities, Jackson's own moods, in her mind anyways, were distinct, taking on personalities of their own.
"[Jackson] took the unusual step of assigning names to her moods," explains Franklin "asif they were characters in a play." There was "Irish," Jackson's happiest persona and one that her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman would later call her by as a pet name, but there was also Harlequin, Villon, and Pan, all parts of Jackson that she identified as distinct and unique moods.
4. Jackson's husband decided to marry her after reading her short story, "Janice."
"Stanley closed the magazine demanding to know who Shirley Jackson was. He had decided, he said, to marry her."
Shirley Jackson married writer and literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman in 1940, two years after meeting at Syracuse where they were both enrolled. There marriage was punctuated with both unbridled love and support for one another, as well as constant conflict over Hyman's frequent infidelities. But despite all of the other women in and out of Hyman's life, Jackson, he claimed, was always his one true love, the real deal, and his infatuation with the writer started before the two had even met.
According to Franklin's book, "The budding critic scoffed at most of what he read. But 'Janice' brought him up short. Stanley closed the magazine demanding to know who Shirley Jackson was. He had decided, he said, to marry her." Two years later, he did just that in a small ceremony at a friend's apartment in New York City.
5. Hyman's infidelities made Jackson physically ill.
Hyman told Jackson, "you have forever spoiled me for other girls," but despite those words, Hyman frequently partook in other women's affections — including their next-door neighbors' and Shirley's own friends. Hyman was no stranger to infidelity, and did nothing to hide it, either. In fact, the writer and eventual husband would share his dalliances with his wife whenever he showed her his diary, something he did often.
Despite his openness with his actions, Jackson was guarded with her feelings about them. Outwardly, she regarded Hyman's unfaithfulness with aloofness of her own, but inside, she was frequently heartbroken, something that eventually took a toll on her physical health. After hearing of one of Hyman's many escapades, Jackson drafted a heated letter to her partner but never sent it, something the author did often in her communications with both her husband and her mother. "Only days after choking back the words she so dearly wished to say to him, she fell ill with a swollen throat!" Franklin points out ironically. It was not the first or last time Jackson's emotions took control of her overall health.
6. Jackson was a practicing witch.
" [...] perhaps the only contemporary writer who is a practicing ammeteur witch."
"Miss Jackson writes not with a pen but with a broomstick." An often quoted line about Jackson's writing, this quib sheds a lot of light about the woman behind the ghost stories. Not only did her fiction draw upon the supernatural, but so did her beliefs in real life, too. After discovering Sir James George Frazer's The Golden Bough in college and writing about witchcraft at the University of Rochester in her late teens, Jackson became more than just a little interested in the occult and began actually studying it.
"Shirley would later make bold, if often facetious, claims about her own occult powers," Franklin tells readers, "from the jacket copy of her first novel — 'perhaps the only contemporary writer who is a practicing ammeteur witch' — to the rumor that she had caused publisher Alfred A. Knopf to break his leg in a skiing accident." From her late teens throughout the rest of her life, Jackson believed in witchcraft, and even read tarot cards. Now do you see where she gets her spooky side from?
7. She found motherhood inspiring.
While many other female authors of her time — and, more often, the wives of male authors — stayed away from more traditional home and family models, abstaining from having children of their own, Jackson found her own motherhood to be a great source of inspiration.
Not only did motherhood inform her popular short stories about children and home life itself, the ones originally published in women's magazines and later compiled into the fictionalized memoir, Life Among the Savages, it also inspired her other writing as well. "After giving birth to Sarah," Franklin explains, "she came out of the hospital 'full of ultra-violet rays and story plots.'"
Though it's impossible to ignore the ambivalence, the inner conflict, the author felt about her life as a career woman and her life as a family woman (an ambivalence that often showed up in her darker novels, like Castle and Haunting of Hill House, about women feeling trapped and isolated), her love for her children and her love of motherhood is undeniable, "a life for which Shirley was instantly, innately suited."
8. Jackson always tucked her children in at night — but not before singing them a chilling nursery song.
"The first was young Miss Grattan — she tried not to let him in / He stabbed her with a corn knife, that's how his crimes begin..."
Jackson took pride in her children and devoted herself to motherhood as fiercely as she devoted herself to her writing. She was affectionate with her children, unlike her own mother was, and gave the the space and freedom she had craved as a young girl. She kissed them every night before bed, and made sure to tuck them in with a song — but, in true Shirley Jackson style, it wasn't just any old song.
When she tired of the popular Child Ballads of her own childhood, Jackson would sing the kids to sleep to "a gruesome ditty called 'The Grattan Murders' that would eventually appear in The Haunting of Hill House," a song that included stabbing and death.
What, that song wouldn't give you sweet dreams?
9. Jackson kept a scrapbook of mean letters.
When "The Lottery" was published in the New Yorker in 1948, readers' reactions stunned both Jackson and the publication's editors. While it became an almost instant critical success, commercially, feelings were very mixed. Some readers found the story to be fascinating and intriguing, while others — many, many others — were so disturbed and outraged by it, they cancelled their subscription to the magazine. But not before sending hate mail first.
Called "outrageous," "gruesome," and "shocking," The New Yorker and Jackson herself were overwhelmed with letters, almost 100 in the first month following publication, by readers who were angered by the story they found in the pages of their favorite magazine. "In 'Biography of a Story,' Jackson gave the final total as more than 300 letters. Only 13 were kind," Franklin explains in the biography. In her archive today, you can find a leather-bound scrapbook containing over 150 "The Lottery" related letters, mostly unkind.
10. She may have foreseen her own death.
" [...] she was not talking about an ordinary trip. And it was clear she was going alone."
Shirley Jackson died of heart failure in her sleep, while napping the upstairs bedroom of her home in North Bennington, at the age of 48. Though she had struggled with health issues for the latter part of her life, her death was unexpected — at least, to everyone except for Jackson, who may have sensed it coming on.
"And, in the very last days of her life, she sent Carl Brandt a strange, vaguely worded letter," Franklin tells readers. "She was about to leave for a wonderful journey, she said, where she would meet many new people. Though she offered no details, Brandt had the sense she was not talking about an ordinary trip. And it was clear she was going alone."
Did Jackson sense her lurking doom, or was she just excited at the prospects her career held in the coming months? No one can say for sure, but if anyone could predict their own death, it would be the late, the great, Shirley Jackson.