Essential Shirley Jackson

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Essential Shirley Jackson

Beyond the Lottery: Essential Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson stories you should read before the government sacrifices you to the economy

By Melissa DeVrieze


Since The Lottery was first published in 1948, it has elicited a visceral, love-it-or-hate-it reaction from readers as they are forced to confront and accept an uncomfortable truth: our stories reflect our societies.

The horror of The Lottery lies in the senselessness of its tradition and the quickness with which neighbor turns upon neighbor, yes. But it’s also in the despair and powerlessness of Tess Hutchinson’s final moments, from the dreadful realization that she’s holding the marked paper to her brutal end. When her family and friends surround her, when her children start to throw stones, her fear underlies sorrow, dread, and anger at the perceived injustice. And it seems, too, that there must be an element of remorse. After all, Tessie Hutchinson is not attending her first lottery, but merely the first lottery where she’s not throwing stones.

As readers, it’s here in this final moment, just before the crowd is upon her, that we want to look away. We want more than anything to pretend we’re looking at a relic rather than a mirror, because the monster at the end of The Lottery and many of Jackson’s other tales is not THEM, but US.

So, here we are, in the year of our lord 2020, nervously clutching our papers and waiting to see if we’ll be a Mrs. Hutchinson or one of the villagers who gets to go back home when this is over. What to do? Some mental health experts suggest avoiding entertainment with heavy themes, so you could listen to them and find a quiet, peaceful hobby to occupy your time. Of course, you could also lean into the nightmare. If you’ve already watched Outbreak and Pandemic a dozen times, may we suggest reading these Shirley Jackson stories to help you exceed your daily dose of psychological terror and existential despair?


The Haunting of Hill House 

For reasons that are plainly obvious, The Haunting of Hill House appears on every reliable list of great horror stories. And, for reasons that defy understanding, an acceptable cinematic recreation of this story has yet to be produced. 1963’s The Haunting, while often lauded as one of the greatest horror movies of all time, made significant alterations to the plot (notably, it altered or eliminated the character’s motivations, which are kind of, you know, a central part of storytelling.) 1999’s attempt (with Owen Wilson showing up at his Owen Wilson-est, god bless him) repeated and doubled down on 1963’s mistakes, and did what 90’s films did best: it put its whole budget into special effects and fell short in every other way. The recent series (on Netflix, watch if you must) is to the novel what imitation banana flavoring is to a banana: they both have “banana” in their name.

This disconnect between the source and its imitations can lead many to believe they know what to expect from the story itself. Reader, you don’t. Jackson’s 1959 novel is a perfect study in terror. It haunts you with stunning, unnerving, rule-breaking prose. In fact, there’s no better example of Jackson’s genius than the novel’s flawless first paragraph.

In the tradition of literary gothic, …Hill House deals out fear and dread in spades, punctuating it with reprieves too brief to slow your heart. Unlike traditional horror fiction, Jackson’s gift is in making you afraid of being afraid, a feeling that consumes you from the moment you first spy Hill House through Eleanor’s eyes until she makes her ecstatic escape. It’s in those last seconds that the story’s true horror becomes clear: it’s not the story or the house or any ghost that will haunt you; it’s the relief that you share with Eleanor in those final moments as you approach the gate together that will keep you up at night.


“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 its 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.” 


  • Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House


We Have Always Lived in the Castle 

That We Have Always Lived in the Castle is not every bibliophile’s favorite novel is unfathomable. Jackson’s talent as a storyteller and writer are at their best here, and while my love for The Haunting of Hill House knows no bounds, We Have Always Lived in the Castle is, in my never-humble opinion, Jackson’s greatest work. I hesitate to even provide a synopsis, because part of what grips you by the eyes and forces you to devour this story is the “where on earth is this taking me” of it all.

If you count yourself both a writer and a reader, We Have Always Lived in the Castle will infuriate and inspire you with perfect sentence after perfect sentence, making you curse the gods because you didn’t write them and thank the gods for allowing you to read them. In short: you will become obsessed with this story, lose your breath as you whip through the pages, and come to be the kind of person that shouts at others for not having it read it yet.

A Warning: 2018’s film adaptation is perfectly cast, and that’s the only kind thing there is to say about it. It was not good, the narrative changes were not good, the plot changes were not good, and the motivations that those plot changes imply are, it should go without saying, also not good. The 1960’s stage adaptation is doubly bad. Avoid both like a group of ten people congregating in an enclosed space.


“I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had.” 


  • Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle



Jackson’s second novel, Hangsaman hits on many of the anti-bildungsroman notes in JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, as well as those in Sylvia Plath’s roman-a-clef, The Bell Jar. However, Hangsaman defies any clear-cut comparison. Like any coming-of-age protagonist, Natalie Waite doesn’t know who she is, but her questions go deeper and darker than “where do I fit in,” or “what is my purpose.” Natalie and Hangasaman ask: Am I sane? Is anyone? Am I even real? Is the person reading this book real? Well, are you?

Hangsaman benefits from a loose narrative style, mingling third person narration with the inner thoughts and dialogue of the protagonist. Many are familiar with unreliable narrators, but Hangsaman’s indirect discourse is different, having an effect not dissimilar from a fever dream. When you join the narrator and protagonist in the labyrinth of pages, you realize you’ve been there all along: her questions are your questions, and your grip on what’s real and what’s imaginary is just as tenuous as hers.

The good news is your grasp on reality will strengthen the longer you stay away from the book. The bad news, of course, is that it will call to you from the bookshelf long after you put it down, forcing you to ask dangerous questions, such as, “What was it about that book that I loved so much? There was something so interesting and strange…what was it? I should take it down, give it another read…just to see.”


“Poor things, she thought – do they have to spend all this energy just to surround me? It seemed pitiful that these automatons should be created and wasted, never knowing more than a minor fragment of the pattern in which they were involved, to learn and follow through insensitively a tiny step in the great dance which was seen close up as the destruction of Natalie, and far off, as the end of the world.”


  • Shirley Jackson, Hangsaman