Fiction » Horror

The Best Shirley Jackson Books

recommended by Joan Passey

Cornish Horrors: Tales from the Land's End by Joan Passey

Cornish Horrors: Tales from the Land's End
by Joan Passey

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Shirley Jackson, the 20th-century horror author, has had a remarkable resurgence in popularity in recent years, with a series of screen adaptations bringing her writing to a new audience. Joan Passey, an academic at Bristol University and co-editor of an upcoming collection of essays on the 'mother of horror', selects five books that offer the best introduction to Shirley Jackson's work.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

Cornish Horrors: Tales from the Land's End by Joan Passey

Cornish Horrors: Tales from the Land's End
by Joan Passey

Read
Buy all books

Who was Shirley Jackson, and why should we read her books?

Shirley Jackson was a mid-20th century American author, who was writing from the end of World War Two and into the midst of the Cold War. Her work very much engages with these kinds of anxieties. And while she was somewhat forgotten after her heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, she is regarded as the mother of contemporary horror as we know it.

Stephen King declared that The Haunting of Hill House is one of the greatest ghost stories ever written, alongside Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. Jackson has influenced authors like Neil Gaiman and Joanne Harris, and we wouldn’t have horror and gothic literature as we have it now without her.

She’s also a really interesting figure. She was married to an academic, Stanley Hyman. She had four children. She started her career, and indeed spent most of her career, writing for women’s magazines, those kind of mid-20th-century ladies’ magazines about domestic life, full of tips on having dinner on the table for your husband when he came home. So she’s engaging with all these Americana ideals of femininity and domesticity—and arguably perpetuating those ideas—while writing horror stories that centre on unsettling that domestic space. There’s a woman who fantasies about killing her husband with an ashtray. Another woman takes over a man’s flat without him even noticing. Children seemingly possessed by or communicating with demons. So she takes these ideas of the housewife as the heart of the home, or the mother raising a child, and she perverts them, makes them weird and unsettling.

“What is it about Jackson’s brand of quiet, mundane horror that speaks to us now?”

A lot of her works were out of print completely, but she’s enjoyed a bit of a renaissance over the last decade or so: there’s a Library of America collection, Penguin have been reprinting her works. Mike Flanagan adapted The Haunting of Hill House as a Netflix show, which was huge. There has been a sort of novelisation of her biography, called Shirley, which was made into a film last year with Elizabeth Moss, and did quite well on the award circuit. And we had the 2019 adaptation of We Have Always Lived in the Castle as well.

Critics have been wondering: what is it about Jackson’s brand of quiet, mundane horror that speaks to us now? So that’s one of the reasons to read Jackson now: lots of people are discovering her, and we want to figure out why. And if you’re interested in horror and the Gothic, she’s an originator of a very particular type of it. And if you’re interested in women’s writing, she’s engaging with gender and sexuality as well, in some really weird ways. The Haunting of Hill House was published in the 1950s, but it’s ostensibly a lesbian text.

Also, she’s great.

Let’s talk about what is arguably Shirley Jackson’s most famous book, The Haunting of Hill House. What makes it so good?

So it’s a quintessential gothic novel. On the surface it doesn’t appear to be doing anything too different: it’s a story about supernatural investigation—ghost hunters spending the night in a haunted house to empirically, rationally prove whether ghosts are real or not. A doctor rents a house with a terrible reputation and invites a range of people who have previously had supernatural experiences. The only two who accept are Theodora and Eleanor.

It’s very short, but packed with this dense prose and disorientating, multi-sensory experiences. As it unravels, you begin to wonder whether the house is haunted or is it actually something more like The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman—a narrative of mental illness, the fallibility of perception and the hysterical woman? Or is it that Eleanor has a kind of telekinetic ability where she’s creating these disturbances herself, and she’s the supernatural figure?

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It does all that in a very short span of time, and it toys with everything that we know about the haunted house as this familiar trope and brings it right up to date, with an ambiguous ending very much in the vein of James’ The Turn of the Screw; we’re not quite sure whether the ghosts are real or not, and it doesn’t even really matter if they’re real or not when you’ve been so effectively chilled.

There was a cinematic adaptation of it in the 1960s, another in the 1990s starring Catherine Zeta Jones, and then there’s the recent TV series, which is not exactly an adaptation of the novel—it takes the spirit of The Haunting of Hill House and plays with it. There’s a character in the series called Shirley, there are characters called Theodora and Eleanor but they’re sisters. It’s successful because it’s doing something very different with the haunted house formula. So if we think of the uncanny as taking the familiar and making it unfamiliar, then an unfamiliar haunted house story is the ultimate in that. The adaptation plays with it in some really interesting ways.

We’ve referred to ‘gothic fiction’ a few times, but could you clarify exactly what is meant by that term?

So Gothic fiction was a genre of writing that began at the end of the 18th century as a response, arguably, to the French Revolution—to the blood and gore and spectacle of that. The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole is usually considered the first gothic novel, so it’s been around for four centuries of literary history.

Some critics have argued that the reason it persists is that it has this ability to erupt at moments of cultural trauma. It changes, but some things remain consistent: it tends to be concerned with the darker side of human nature, with violence and horror and terror, with fear and sensation and excess, and often transgression as well. It’s a series of familiar tropes, like the haunted house or the monsters. Think of malicious aristocrats twiddling their moustaches.

“Gothic fiction has historically been perceived as lowbrow”

It has influenced a lot of writing; there are gothic elements in the realist works of Charles Dickens in the 19th century. It becomes the horror fiction blurred with science fiction in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It’s the vampires of John Polidori and Bram Stoker and Anne Rice, who passed away only recently. Shirley Jackson very much inherited from these older gothic traditions, especially in the way she used folklore; her husband was a folklorist, she was a voracious reader and collector of lore, and she drew on lots of ballad figures in her work. She then went on to influence writers like Stephen King, and her influence can be seen in stories of telekinetic young women like King’s Carrie. So the gothic is always going through cycles of regeneration, it is always being reborn.

Crucially, however, it has historically been perceived as lowbrow. It’s often written by women, for women. That kind of originates with Ann Radcliffe in the 18th century. And it’s concerned a lot with marginalised experience—racialised experience, or the experiences of being a woman or of being queer. So it’s often been on the fringes and seen as lesser. So that’s one of the reasons why a lot of critics are loath to call Shirley Jackson ‘gothic’ because it’s something associated with a lack of seriousness.

You mentioned marginalised people as characters. I think that ties into the experience of the main characters in We Have Always Lived in the Castle, your second book choice. Of the most famous Shirley Jackson books, this is probably my personal favourite.

It’s my favourite too. Although if you ask me tomorrow, I’ll say The Haunting of Hill House. But this is a novel about two young women, again, in a mansion house: one that is somewhat haunted, but by more recent history—what they have done. It’s about a family who’ve been poisoned at the dinner table, via a bowl of sugar. I think there’s something happening there with girlhood and sweetness. And the community has ostracised them, as you say, and pushed them into this position of almost being the witches in the house on the hill. They’re feared and revered and generally left alone.

Like a lot of Jackson’s work, it’s about small communities in 20th century America. It’s about a distrust of women. It follows a long literary tradition of women being accused of poisoning—this being the only disposal in a woman’s power in an otherwise oppressive society. And it’s about strange sisters. So you can see shades of Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic, though the supernatural in it isn’t as explicit, in fact you could argue there’s nothing supernatural in We Have Always Lived in the Castle at all. Instead it’s about a kind of strangeness.

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It has this very odd protagonist, Merricat, who is a sort of witch, she enacts rituals and spells, but whether they’re effective or not it’s left up to you as the reader. But the fact that she’s doing them is of interest. It’s a text that has been read as queer, because of the relationship between those two sisters who become a kind of quasi husband and wife, with the uncle as their infant. And it has great fun with ideas of invasion as well.

They have this cousin that returns to claim the family fortune, and it’s all about Merricat pushing him away and preserving this kind of feminist Eden of her and her sister together. Again, it does a lot of complicated things in a really short form. I think it’s a shame that it’s not as well-known as The Haunting of Hill House. But maybe The Haunting of Hill House is more familiar, as a haunted house story, and Castle is a bit too out there.

As you’ve alluded to, Jackson is often cited as leading the way for female-led stories of the supernatural like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Sabrina the Teenage Witch.

Jackson centres women in these narratives, and often quite specifically young women at the transition point—post-adolescence and the independence that brings, but pre-marriage.

A dangerous moment?

So much gothic and horror literature is about that precipice of the child becoming a woman, in adolescence. Jackson situates it at a slightly different point—post-college, or pre-marriage—which I think is interesting in terms of the changing idea of women’s freedom in mid 20th century America, as birth control is being introduced and women are accessing higher education in ways they’ve never been able to before. Lots of her short stories, too, have these young, unmarried women at their centre—and that’s something loaded with potentiality. They’re not mothers, they’re not wives, they’re no longer children or really daughters. What do you do with those women?

It reminds me of a census I saw of, from the 1850s, that described something like 600,000 women who were unmarried and childless; the newspapers called them ‘redundant women’, and considered them a great threat to society. Because: what are they up to? I think Jackson is concerned with the idea that relationships between women, conversations between women, have been historically obscured—have gone on in secret in domestic spaces, and haven’t had a public stage. There’s something potentially quite scary in that—it’s where the modern idea of the coven comes from.

Let’s talk about The Lottery and Other Stories next. The title story caused a real kerfuffle at the time of first publication in 1948. I think, for us to be able to discuss it in any depth, you will need to give spoilers.

The Lottery is often considered one of the best American short stories of all time, and is taught in writing programmes all over the world. It’s about a small American community, which appears to be holding some kind of regular ballot. It’s just a normal part of their world. Everyone knows it’s going on. As a reader, you’re feeling very alienated by the mystery of this seemingly mundane thing. But as the story reaches its close, you begin to realise that what they are voting for is to stone a member of the community to death. It’s never explicitly spelled out why, just that it happens, that it needs to happen, and will happen without question.

It’s almost like a festival.

I think it’s interrogating the idea of the status quo, of doing something simply because it’s tradition. And it’s a forerunner of films like The Wicker Man and Midsommar. Those have that sense of the ritual sacrifice to redeem and cleanse an entire community.

Yes, I’ve seen this subgenre described as ‘folk horror’, which I quite like. But it also has story elements in common with, say, The Purge.

It was hugely controversial, as you say. This was a woman, a mother, the wife of an academic, who wrote for ladies magazines, writing a story in which a woman gets stoned to death at the end. Probably the controversy helped with its success.

There’s a really lovely letter from Jackson where she says something along the lines, people probably read the story anticipating that someone would win a washing machine. There’s a discomfort in working within the domestic genre, but doing something strange and horrific. It’s such a probing commentary on the insidiousness, or the viciousness, of small communities. Her work is absolutely about the evil that lies beneath the surface of normality, the nasty things that people do together in the white picket fence towns. She relocates gothic horror from the forest to the suburbs.

Absolutely. And just so influential. I’m thinking of Stepford Wives, Rosemary’s Baby, Stranger Things, even The Virgin Suicides… But, speaking of Shirley Jackson’s letters, does that bring us to your fourth book recommendation? This is a collection of her letters, edited by her son. Does it open a window into her mind?

I think it’s important, because so much of her writing is semi-autobiographical. You know: she’s living on a university campus. Lots of her stories are about the kind of young women that she’s living alongside, the women her husband is having affairs with…. Which is perhaps why so many of the husbands in her stories end up being horribly attacked! There’s a child who appears in her stories called Laurie—of course, Laurence Hyman is her son, who went on to edit this collection.

She published a collection called Life Among the Savages, which I’ll get to, and another called Raising Demons, which really blurred that line between memoir and fiction. They were about her family, her children, and the horror and supernatural potential that lies beneath all that. So it feels very natural to read her letters as an extension of that, as context, illuminating the realities that these stories are situated in. I think it makes the stories even more strange and disconcerting—it emphasises the oddness of a mother writing about child rearing in the 1950s in a way that is so raw it would be considered refreshing now, you know? She really disrupts this ideal of the mother as the heart of the home, she tears it apart. It’s a messy, brutal process with an ugliness to it. I think that’s an idea that we wrestle with even now.

“Jackson is concerned with the idea that relationships between women, conversations between women, have been historically obscured”

These letters are from her teenage years all the way to the end of her life. She died very young, at 48. We get a glimpse of her construction of herself as author as well. There’s a letter to herself, about how alienating it is to be a writer. She reflects on the reception of her work that is really interesting, in terms of the history of women’s writing. She talks about her husband’s colleagues being in raptures as she reads from her newest novel for 30 minutes, and then the very next day she’s dismissed again as just the wife of Professor Hyman. So they tell us more about her, but also the ways in which women were forced to carve out space for themselves at this time, and how conscious she was of her reception—and how resistant to this idea that there’s a dichotomy between being a horror author and a mother and a wife.

She’s not bitter. It’s not that she feels trapped within the domestic sphere. In many of her letters, she’s writing of the many little pleasures of day-to-day life. I think you can see later in the reception of work like Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, we like to think that there’s this fragmentation between working and having a creative career, especially in being a mother, but Jackson doesn’t see those things as separate. She sees one as fuelling the other, which reframes a lot of our stereotypes about 1950s femininity.

Interesting. One thing I want to ask, as delicately as I can, is whether you think she was an unusually disturbed person? Or does her writing simply reflect a disturbing reality?

I think she perceives reality as something that, even in its banality and mundanity, is always strange and unusual. Horror is located in everything; evil is everywhere, all the time. She’s just disrupting the possibility of normality as a concept. There’s been a lot of posthumous pathologisation of Jackson—pulling apart her relationship with alcohol or food or with her own body. We know that she, with tongue firmly in cheek, conceived of herself as a witch, and loved having books of spells, and folklore and tarot. We know that she did struggle with agoraphobia, and there has been a suggestion that this might influence the claustrophobia in Jacksons work—because so much of it is being enclosed within the home. She’s definitely a women who had unusual traits, and she was talking openly of mental ill health in 1948. So I think both: the world is strange, and Shirley Jackson was strange.

Let’s talk about Life Among the Savages, which you mentioned earlier.

Yes, this is where that line between Jackson’s reality and fiction became incredibly blurred. She was writing about her children, and giving them pseudonyms. She’s the narrator, and the extent to which she’s fictionalising herself or not is very much up for debate. She writes about a house “with two children and 5000 books”. She refers to a husband, and otherwise just “the husband.”

“Jackson enjoys and relishes in the darkness of children”

The way she talks about her children reminds me of Dr Spock; there’s lots in here about child psychology. But rather than attempting to diagnose or temper her children, she’s always relishing in their strangeness. One of her daughters keeps telling this story that she herself has a daughter of the same name. The family just lives within this fantasy of hers to make life easier. Laurie, the son who went on to edit the collection of letters, tells stories of a naughty boy at school called Charles—but it becomes clear very quickly that Laurie is Charles, and he’s admitting what he’s up to at school through the guise of this naughty friend.

So I suppose the book is about the mythologies and fantasies that you end up living, when you live with children. When you interact with them all the time, you become absorbed into their worlds—an unreality which is as real as any other world. Shirley Jackson enjoys and relishes in the darkness of children.

Just to tie off our discussion, I think there was another book you wanted to mention—a work of criticism.

Yes, if you want to learn more about Shirley Jackson, this book is a good place to go: Bernice Murphy’s edited collection of essays Shirley Jackson: Essays on the Literary Legacy. It’s a comprehensive analysis of Jackson’s most prominent works. It might be nice to look at this, to find a framework for exploring her work. There’s a lot in this collection of essays that points to how innovative and dynamic Shirley Jackson’s books were. The editor, Murphy, has been so key to the revival and reclamation of Jackson’s work, and in situating her within a wider literary landscape.

If you if you want more, clearly, Jackson, this is a nice way to go. But also, if you if you’re interested in finding out more about if you’re interested in reading Jackson for the first time or, you know, expanding your reading, then it might be nice to have a look at this and provide some frameworks for exploring her works. Murphy co-edited those letters with Laurence Hyman, so she was part of the revival not only of Shirley Jackson’s fiction, but of her as an icon.

If one person picks up The Lottery as a result of this interview, I’ll be happy.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Joan Passey

Joan Passey

Joan Passey is a lecturer in English at the University of Bristol where she specialises in Victorian seas and coasts in literature and culture, and Gothic literature from the eighteenth century to the present. Her edited anthology, Cornish Horrors: Tales from the Land’s End was released by the British Library in 2021, and she is currently co-editing a collection of essays on the short fiction of Shirley Jackson with Rob Lloyd.

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Joan Passey

Joan Passey

Joan Passey is a lecturer in English at the University of Bristol where she specialises in Victorian seas and coasts in literature and culture, and Gothic literature from the eighteenth century to the present. Her edited anthology, Cornish Horrors: Tales from the Land’s End was released by the British Library in 2021, and she is currently co-editing a collection of essays on the short fiction of Shirley Jackson with Rob Lloyd.