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Great Writer of Fear, Shirley Jackson

Psychobiography, haunting, and women’s mags

The best opening paragraph in writing is often agreed to be from Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle:

“”My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. 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. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.”

Shirley Jackson drank whiskey, smoked constantly, and loved rich food. Agoraphobic by the time she wrote We Have Always Lived in the Castle, she seldom left her house.

Her horror stories work because we are invited to be victims, too, or victims who maybe are a little deranged, as we are pulled into the story with the main character. She is a master writer, one of the 20th century’s best.

The Shirley Jackson Revival

Shirley Jackson has been enjoying a revival, fifty-plus years after her death. The Haunting of Hill House and the fictional movie Shirley are streaming, and a new biography was published in 2016. The Letters of Shirley Jackson came out in 2021.

I have been immersed in Shirley Jackson, watching the movies, and reading The Letters. I wanted to shout at her to forbid her mother from belittling her well into adulthood, on pain of banishment, and to divorce her philandering husband.

Why does she resonate?

Her mother was old society and Shirley was never thin enough, well-dressed enough, nor met expectations. I look at adolescent pictures of Shirley and think she looks pretty normal.

Her husband, Stanley Hyman, declared he would marry her after reading her story published in the college literary journal. He sought her out, and she fell in love with him, evidenced by her multiple early mash letters.

They enjoyed a life of the mind together, no small thing.

She confessed to herself that maybe if she had children they would love her. Stanley had declared from the beginning that he would not be monogamous, and his many affairs undermined her. Although he was a self-styled Bohemian, they moved to Bennington, Vermont, where he was a professor at Bennington College. Shirley became a reluctant faculty wife, and a housewife, mother, and oh yes writer on the side.

She did, however, host great parties with Stanley, and enjoyed friendships with the literati.

Her children, four in total, did love her. She became the primary breadwinner with her women’s magazine stories of the housewife and crazy antic kids.

So, there is more than one of her issues that resonates with me. She was a woman conflicted with competing roles. An internal voice, reinforced by the people who were supposed to love her, said that she was not enough.

Most of all, Shirley was a writer.

She wrote as an adolescent, as a student, when the baby was napping, and when the kids went to school. She wrote after the kids were in bed. Stanley was harping at her to write for income.

Her letters, to her parents, for years told of their financial shortcomings. In the same letters, she told of trips to New York City and shopping, parties they hosted, and restaurant dinners with Stanley’s choice of wine.

The Lottery by Shirley Jackson is one of the most famous short stories, anthologized many times and taught to students of American literature. It tells in fable or folk tale form, the story of a woman stoned to death by the villagers of a pleasant small town.

She lived just before Second Wave Feminism and was Mrs. Hyman, a faculty wife at Bennington College. She professed to hate that role.

The real nightmare

One summer day in 1965, when she was 48, she went upstairs to take a nap and didn’t wake up.

A few months later, Stanley married a 20-year-old Bennington student, the same age as his daughter and his daughter-in-law. Now that is a nightmare come true.

I remember my late 40s as a particularly difficult time. The kids were in late adolescence, work was a struggle, and “I” was lost.

Her last, unfinished novel was about a middle-aged woman who is taking control of her own life.

It is not so difficult to read psychobiography into her horror stories. The first story she wrote in the college literary journal that captured Stanley was about a fictional suicide attempt. The flip side of mothering four children, being different from the townspeople or the other faculty wives, might be developing the fictional persona of The House, the Outsider, the Victim, the horror story.

I wish she had lived to realize her latest identity and become the celebrated woman who wrote with great humor and appeal about her own agency. All we are left with are best-selling novels, anthologies of short stories, and a life that continues to fascinate us.

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2 Responses

  1. Dorie Benesh Refling
    | Reply

    I always enjoy reading whatever you write!

    • Sharon Johnson

      Thanks, Dorie. I love connecting to people from many parts of my life. I’m also starting work on a longer work on Lbbie Custer, as you may have guessed.

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