The writer first shot to prominence in 1948 when her chilling short story “The Lottery” was published by The New Yorker, generating the most mail the magazine had ever received in response to a work of fiction; she went on to terrify readers in the American Gothic tradition of Hawthorne and Poe with over 200 short stories and six novels. Yet, for reasons both mysterious and typical, her work fell out of favor and was largely out of print just 10 years ago. The past few years, however, has seen a reviving interest in her work: several of her short story collections were reissued, including Dark Tales with a foreword by Ottessa Moshfegh, whose own work owes a lot to Jackson; Ruth Franklin’s biography Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life won the National Book Critics Circle Award; and, most recently, Netflix based its series The Haunting of Hill House on Jackson’s beloved ghost story of the same name. Jackson, who was described on the jacket copy of her novel The Road Through the Wall, as “perhaps the only contemporary writer who is a practicing amateur witch,” would no doubt have delighted in the posthumous comeback. Maybe we can consider it a literary haunting. If so, Jackson’s ghost has impeccable timing.
We are in a moment of deep political divisiveness, characterized by fear, and a nagging mistrust of institutions. An annual study conducted by Chapman University found that Americans biggest fear in 2018 was corruption of governmental officials, beating out a terrorist attack or even the death of a loved one. Between shady-seeming politicians, and the exaggerated online personas crafted on social media, there is a pervasive sense that people are not who they seem to be. After the 2016 presidential elections, many people woke to the disquieting realization that the country they lived in was not what they thought it was; the realization was not gradual, but spookily disorienting, as if it had been possessed by body-snatching aliens overnight. Totems of American wholesomeness have taken on sinister new meaning — neo-Nazis have swapped skinhead attire for all-American khakis and white polos. Upstanding men, many of them, like Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, projecting an image of the ideal family man, were accused of sexual misconduct and rape. In October, The New York Times reported that white supremacists co-opted milk as a sign of genetic superiority, apparently predicated on the ability to easily digest dairy. According to the paper, one supremacist wrote in a racist Facebook post, “If you can’t drink milk, you have to go back.”
As fans of her work will know, this is pure Jackson territory — her work is characterized by the incipient horror that lurks in everyday American life. In “The Lottery,” the people of an unnamed village gather in the town square on a fine summer day in what first appears to be an idyllic portrait of small-town America … until the ritualistic stoning begins. In “What a Thought,” a bored housewife looks over at her adoring husband after dinner and is struck with the urge to murder him. In “The Beautiful Stranger,” a man returns from a business trip, unable to convince his wife he is really her husband. In “The Possibility of Evil,” Miss Strangeworth, a pleasant 71-year-old woman, beloved as the town matriarch, is revealed to have a habit of sending anonymous, incredibly hateful notes to various townspeople. She does it not out of malice but because “as long as evil existed unchecked in the world, it was Miss Strangeworth’s duty to keep her town alert to it.” Here, Jackson is particularly prescient: what Miss Strangeworth does with a stub of a pencil and sheets of colored paper, is what hundreds of thousands of perfectly nice people do on the internet today. We even have a supernatural nickname for them: trolls.
There is an old parable about a frog being boiled to death. It holds that a frog put in boiling water will jump out immediately. But a frog placed in water that is gradually heated won’t notice the change until he’s boiled alive. That’s what reading Jackson is like — the reader, like many of her characters, isn’t fully aware of the evil until it subsumes them, and then it is too late.
Hill House, the cursed Victorian mansion in The Haunting of Hill House, is immediately distasteful to the novel’s four main characters, who have moved into the house on an ill-fated research mission. But it isn’t until several days later that the root of the house’s wrongness is revealed — every angle in the house is a fraction of a degree off, giving its inhabitants a feeling of disorientation that is all the more unsettling because its cause is so hard to trace. Perhaps that’s why, once the initial ill impression wears off, the researchers find themselves quite comfortable at Hill House: “Odd,” thought Eleanor, the novel’s protagonist, “that the house should be so dreadful and yet in many respects so physically comfortable — the soft bed, the pleasant lawn, the good fire, the cooking of Mrs. Dudley.” Actually, that comfort is part of the house’s evil, a warm embrace that first placates and then suffocates its victims. Like the poor frog, Eleanor doesn’t realize the house’s hold on her until she’s already cooked.
Depending on the critic, Hill House has been said to symbolize everything from sexuality, the psyche, family, and the female body. Likely it’s some amalgamation of all these. Houses held a dual significance in Jackson’s own life. While she is best remembered for her ghost stories and thrillers, Jackson also penned humorous slice-of-life essays for women’s magazines that detailed her life as a dutiful housewife, raising four children in the suburbs. Jackson bore the brunt of childrearing and household chores, while her husband, literary critic Stanley Hyman, was a hands-off father, often embroiled in an affair with one of his students from Bennington College. In Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, biographer Ruth Franklin reveals how life in the home both stifled and inspired Jackson. “Jackson could not come into her own as a writer before she had children,” writes Franklin. “She would not have been the writer she became without them.” Later in her life, Jackson, increasingly unstable, alcoholic, obese, and addicted to amphetamines, would choose to spend most of her time in the family home, rarely leaving it but for the obligatory outing. She died there, at the age of 48, from an apparent heart attack in her sleep.
Whatever it meant to Jackson, Hill House’s menacingly seductive comfort is one that strikes a chord today. Modern life is safer and more convenient than ever. We have a dizzying array of gadgets that make our lives easier (and eliminate or ameliorate many of the household chores that would have occupied Jackson) and health care has progressed to the point that life expectancy has increased nearly a decade in just 50 years. Yet many of us are plagued with the sense that all is not well. Anxiety is at an all-time high, and the boom of the wellness industry testifies to the pervasive fear that our environment is trying to kill us: our air is poisoned, our bread is toxic, and our doctors are lying to us. Still, few of us choose to give up the modern comforts that have so ensnared us. In The Haunting of Hill House, the house is first introduced to us as “not sane.” We too can become comfortable in a house “not sane,” hypnotized by our phones and TVs, slaves to convenience, increasingly lonely and unhappy.
When Tessie Hutchinson, the loser of the draw in “The Lottery,” is ultimately stoned to death, it’s horrifying. But what really chills the reader is how easily her fate, and the entire tradition of the lottery, is accepted by the crowd. Old Man Warner, the village elder, scoffs at word that a neighboring village is talking of ending the tradition of the Lottery:
“Pack of crazy fools,” he says. “Listening to the young folks, nothing’s good enough for them. Next thing you know, they’ll be wanting to go back to living in caves, nobody work any more, live that way for a while. Used to be a saying about ‘Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.’ First thing you know, we’d all be eating stewed chickweed and acorns. There’s always been a lottery.”
And he goes on for some time. It’s the kind of rhetoric many of us will recognize in today’s political discourse: if we let same-sex couples marry, next thing you know people will start marrying their animals! If we legalize cannabis, soon it’ll be heroin! If we let the immigrants in, the country will fall apart! Recently, the writer Lincoln Michel spoofed Jackson’s seminal work to make exactly that point, in his brilliant piece for McSweeney’s titled, “Stoning Our Neighbors to Death Makes the Corn Grow High, and Elitist Liberals Should Stop Attacking this Traditional Value.”
But Old Man Warner is not the only one guilty of perpetuating a brutal and inhuman practice. Each of the villagers is complicit, Mrs. Hutchinson included. “Be a good sport, Tessie,” says one of the other housewives. “All of us took the same chance.” It’s easy to imagine that if Tessie wasn’t chosen, she would have been throwing stones with the rest of the crowd. As the sacrificial victim, however, the tradition of the lottery looks very different to Mrs. Hutchinson. The short story ends with the following lines: “‘It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,’ Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.”
What’s amazing is how quickly each of the villagers forgets how it was only a stroke of random luck that saved them from sharing Mrs. Hutchinson’s fate. This is what we can learn from Jackson. In her work, the real evil isn’t violence or supernatural hauntings. It’s complacency. Jackson reminds us that, in real life, we don’t have to wait until we’ve drawn the bad lot to recognize the injustices around us.
Hayley Phelan writes about culture, style, travel, food, and the internet for The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Elle, Conde Nast Traveler, Business of Fashion, and The Cut. She also has a column in the New York Times Thursday Styles Section.