A Shirley Jackson Primer

Shirley Jackson

It’s now been over a century since Shirley Jackson was born, and her work continues to reveal new facets and delve into the substance of life and our anxieties–both quotidian and cosmic. In a 2017 essay for Nightmare Magazine, author John Langan makes a convincing case that Jackson’s influence on the horror genre remains underrated–and then examines the myriad ways in which her work echoes through a seemingly-disparate array of books written in the decades following her death. 

Though Jackson is best known for her most disquieting books, that doesn’t represent the full spectrum of her work. She was also an sharp chronicler of social and societal dynamics, whether in her writings about her own family or in short stories that brought everyday bigotry to light. Here’s a look at some essential books by and about Jackson, encompassing both her career as a writer and her lasting influence.  


Dark Tales by Shirley Jackson

This newly-assembled collection explores, as its title indicates, many of the bleaker avenues that Jackson charted in her fiction. This includes “The Summer People,” one of her best-known stories, which centers on an aging couple whose decision to stay in a seasonal town after the end of the summer goes badly; as well as the strange, haunting “A Visit.” 


The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson

The title story of Jackson’s first collection remains one of the defining works of her career, and still has the power to unsettle readers decades after it was first published. But the remainder of the collection also contains plenty of memorable works, whether Jackson is exploring the grimmer sides of human nature or illustrating the way that small cruelties can accrue over time and curdle into something awful. 


Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin

Ruth Franklin’s dense, emotionally affecting biography of Jackson is fantastically comprehensive, encompassing a detailed look at her life, a sharp literary analysis of her major works, and a survey of the fissures that developed over the course of her life. It also traces her connections to other literary figures of the time–including Ralph Ellison, who was a close friend of Jackson and her husband, critic Stanley Edgar Hyman. The result is an informative and deeply readable work of nonfiction for Jackson aficionados and newcomers alike. 


The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

For all that Jackson’s fiction has been influential on the horror genre, actual paranormal phenomena is relatively sparse in her work–instead, suspense often arises through surrealism and a more human variety of horror. The Haunting of Hill House is more overtly supernatural, albeit with a great deal of restraint and a great deal of ambiguity. Binge-watchers rejoice: after two big-screen films inspired by the novel, a series-length adaptation for Netflix is currently in the works. 


We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

This, the final novel to be completed in Jackson’s lifetime, is a perfectly-pitched work of mounting secrets, dark truths, and unsettling bonds. In chronicling the lives of two sisters living in isolation after the death of the rest of their family, Jackson created a perfect blend of fictional atmosphere, intense character dynamics, and a pervasive sense of menace. 


Shirley by Susan Scarf Merrell

Many of Jackson’s stories and novels explored the volatile emotions and social dynamics lurking below the surface of seemingly idyllic communities. Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel Shirley places Jackson herself at the center of a story involving the disappearance of a young woman and a fracturing marriage–in other words, a decidedly Jacksonian scenario. 


The Bird’s Nest by Shirley Jackson

The Bird’s Nest chronicles the shifting power dynamic between an ailing young woman, the unconventional doctor brought in to treat her, and her aunt, who possesses a fair number of secrets. That the protagonist has a quartet of clashing personalities allows Jackson to experiment with her prose in a number of ways; stylistically speaking, it’s the boldest book of her career. 


Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” by Miles Hyman

The short story “The Lottery” has had a tendency to overshadow some of Jackson’s other work; on the other hand, the fact that it’s a primally unsettling story told in a precise and unsettling manner can account for much of its staying power. This graphic novel adaptation of it channels Jackson’s prose into stark linework and memorable use of light and shadow. And there’s a familial connection here as well: Hyman is Jackson’s grandson. 


Living With the Savages by Shirley Jackson

Living With the Savages is one of two nonfiction books that Jackson wrote about family life, along with her follow-up, Raising Demons. Here, the concerns and anxieties are closer to home, though no less menacing in their own way: the dangers of the outside world, financial instability, and communication breakdowns. In the context of Jackson’s bibliography, it also provides an interesting lesson in context. One of the anecdotes here appears in a slightly different form in The Lottery and Other Stories, acquiring a slightly different mood in each. 


The Sundial by Shirley Jackson

The Sundial has all of the ingredients for a suspenseful tale: a family gathered together in one location, a fantastic sense of place, and the specter of death looming overhead. Throw in some apocalyptic visions and you have one of Jackson’s most singular works. One can also look at it as a middle ground between the measured psychological studies of her first novels and the Gothic surrealism of The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle


Shirley Jackson: Essays on the Literary Legacy by Bernice M. Murphy

Shirley Jackson’s books incorporate everything from sharply-considered observations on small-town life to haunting questions about the nature of the self and the fears that lurk in the back of our minds. When thinking about the work that she’s left behind, it may be helpful to delve into the writings of others about her–in this case, the writers in this anthology, who explore a variety of aspects of Jackson’s writing in these essays.


This was initially published in Biographile.

Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on TwitterFacebook, and sign up for our mailing list.