Are you a fan of horror? Are you one of the many that binge watched The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix? But more importantly, have you ever heard the name Shirley Jackson?
For myself, the words "thriller" and "horror" have always been synonymous with Stephen King. It wasn't until just a couple years ago that I first heard the name Shirley Jackson. As you're about to learn, that fact is sadly right in line with the lack of appreciation and recognition that she received throughout her life. But I want to change that. So let me tell you all about the queen of horror.
Shirley Jackson was born in San Francisco, California on December 14, 1916. She was the daughter of Leslie and Geraldine Jackson. Shirley had been born not long after her parents were married, and sadly for Shirley, this led to a her mother resenting her for the entirety of her life. Geraldine had been disappointed when she found herself pregnant very shortly after her wedding because she had been looking forward to spending the early years of her marriage alone with her husband. Geraldine had even told Shirley that she was the product of a failed abortion. Through her life, Geraldine was constantly criticizing Shirley about her hair, her weight, and her "refusal to cultivate feminine charm."
Her family were believers of Christian Science, meaning that they were of the belief that prayer would do the healing, rather than taking someone to a hospital. Shirley, however, did not share this view which led to fights and arguments between herself and her mother and grandmother. When her grandmother eventually died, Shirley was noted to have said that her grandmother had "died of Christian Science."
Between the struggles that Jackson faced with her own family as well as struggling to fit in with other children, she found herself spending most of her time writing. She would hide away writing all day long, much to her mother's dismay. This only added to her mother's frustration with the fact that her daughter was nothing like what she had wanted.
While most of Jackson's life was spent in California, that abruptly changed her senior year of high school when her father accepted a job in New York. Jackson was immediately displeased by the move and yearned for her life in California.
After graduating from high school, Jackson attended the University of Rochester. This school was close to her family and her parents felt it would be perfect so that they could keep a watchful eye over her and her studies. However, not long into her college career, she stepped away on a hiatus. Following her year long hiatus, Jackson returned to school, only this time attending Syracuse University. This experience was a significantly more positive one for her.
While attending Syracuse, Jackson had been involved with the college magazine. The publishing of her story, "Janice," proved to be a big turning point for both her writing career as well as her love life. Following this publication, the magazine made Jackson the editor of the fiction section. This story also caught the attention of a man named Stanley Edgar Hyman.
Upon reading Jackson's story, Hyman set his sights on Jackson. He reportedly decided that she was the woman he intended on marrying. Following her difficult upbringing, Jackson had at this point been experiencing a fair amount of anxiety and depression. So when Hyman entered her life, she was enamored with him and was full of hope. All her life, she had been ridiculed for her looks and the way her mind worked. But this man was the opposite of what she had grown accustomed to. He found her to be beautiful, he understood the way her mind worked, he believed in her and encouraged her writing. It was absolutely revolutionary for her.
Following their graduation from Syracuse University, the two were married in 1940. While the two were in love with one another, their families were anything but supportive. Hyman came from a traditional Jewish family, but he himself self identified as a "militant atheist." His parents strongly disapproved of him marrying someone who wasn't Jewish. Jackson's family, on the other hand, were extremely anti-Semitic. Due to this, she did not even tell them of the wedding until months after the two were wed.
It wasn't long after their wedding that Jackson's rosy image of a perfect life with Hyman was shattered. Hyman didn't hesitate to show the side of him that was an absolute womanizer. Not only did he insist on sleeping around with various women, but he also manipulated Jackson into saying she wanted to be in an open marriage, as well as expected her to sit back and listen to her husband boast about all of his sexual excursions.
Hyman also made a point of calling the shots within their marriage. In 1945, just after their first child was born, Hyman was offered a position at the Bennington College in Vermont. The family moved and settled in there. While Hyman was away working at the college, Jackson stayed home raising their four children and being a traditional housewife. Jackson wrote comedic pieces for Good Housekeeping and Woman's Home Companion about her life spent at home raising her family.
While Jackson made light of her situation, her reality was in fact more somber. As she grew more and more unhappy with her life, she also grew more dependent on alcohol, tranquilizers, and amphetamines. It wasn't just her husband that made her feel miserable. She also found herself feeling patronized by her community as a faculty wife. She ultimately found herself lacking any source of refuge.
Jackson's husband had a very traditional view on the role of a wife and mother in the household. His brother even stated that these views were the only thing from his traditional Jewish upbringing that he held onto in his adult life.
However, even with his strictly traditional views, Hyman did encourage Jackson's writing. He really did believe in her writing and encouraged her along to the point that she became the breadwinner of the family. But if anything, that only left a sour taste in Hyman's mouth. He continued to do various things to remain "in control" of his wife and family. This included handling all of the finances in the family. Even though Jackson brought in the majority of the money, Hyman restricted how much money she was allowed to have, giving her a small allowance. He even took to making up stories about Jackson and her success. He claimed that she was in fact an idiot and would fall into a trance when writing. He claimed that when she was finished with her writing, she asked him to explain her own writing to her.
As it turned out, escaping from Jackson's family and going to Hyman proved to be just as abusive and toxic, if not more. And these struggles only aggravated Jackson's struggles with anxiety and depression. However, like many artists, these personal struggles were a key element in Jackson's writings. In some of her pieces, there would be a malevolent male that would represent her husband. There were also cruel communities, such as the community in The Lottery, that represented the relationship she had with her own community.
Jackson did not exclude herself from the regular themes in her pieces. Often found in Jackson's pieces were pairs of women. It could be two sisters, maybe two friends and other pairings of that nature. But with all of these pairings, one would be more confident and bold. The other would be far more submissive. These women were to represent Jackson and the internal struggles she would face.
In addition, in some of her more psychological thrilling pieces, the struggle between the protagonist and their own psychological traumas that they were unable to shake also became regular themes reflecting on her own life. While she managed to escape her mother's abuse, she ran straight into an equally abusive marriage. Just in the same way, Eleanor in The Haunting of Hill House escaped her own personal traumas only to be imprisoned by her own psychological traumas.
Throughout her marriage, Jackson would get so angry with Hyman that she would threaten to divorce him. She would swear to do so, in fact. She was hurt and fed up with the way he treated her. But what always overpowered that anger was her fear. Her fear to leave, her fear to live alone, and her fear for what that type of future would hold. This fear kept Jackson paralyzed from leaving her unhappy marriage.
As an adult, Jackson gained an interest into witchcraft and the occult. Over time, she collected a variety of books on the subject and had a large library. She would often joke about being an amateur witch and would comment on the spells she would do. She would even do tarot card readings for friends and family. This interest is sited as the inspiration to some of the themes of her more chilling pieces.
While Jackson held this interest, she admitted that she didn't believe in ghosts. While she would write chilling stories, some of which held ghostly themes, she did not actually believe in ghosts themselves. In fact, she explained that the ghostly story lines were actually inspired from other stories and experiences she had heard about from others.
To add to this, some also suggest that her interest in witchcraft and the occult had more to do with keeping others on edge more than having a true belief in it. She had joked that she had made publisher Alfred A. Knopf break his leg while skiing in Vermont while in the middle of a contract dispute with her husband. These sorts of stories and tales in some ways gave her a bit of power in a life where power and the upper hand was hard for her to achieve.
In 1962, Jackson published her final novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Not long after the novel was published, Jackson suffered a nervous breakdown that left her struggling with acute agoraphobia. "I have written myself into the house," she said on the matter. Not only was she struggling with agoraphobia, but she also found herself unable to write. It wasn't for two years before she completely recovered and found herself able to comfortably go out and write again.
Toward the end of her struggle with agoraphobia, Jackson began to journal as a way to try to coax herself back into writing. She wrote predominantly of overcoming her fears and finally being able to leave her husband and be free of him. She was also self aware enough to recognize that once she would be freed of her husband, her writing style would also change. Her anxiety and anguish was a large part of what went into her pieces. If she were freed of it all, she would need to rediscover her writing voice.
Jackson did begin writing a new novel that had a much brighter tone. It was to be a funny and happy novel. She was seventy-five pages into the novel when she died in her sleep. Through her life, Jackson had been a heavy smoker in addition to her reliance on alcohol, tranquilizers, and amphetamines. This caused her to suffer from heart failure at the age of forty-eight.
While Jackson was never able to free herself from her unhappy marriage and personal struggles, she had been an incredibly successful writer. Unfinished, her last novel was published posthumously.
Shirley's life had been tragic from start to finish. Arguably, the ending being in ways more tragic as she was just on the cusp of liberating herself and starting over fresh and new.
If you, much like myself, are interested in learning more about Shirley Jackson's life, a woman named Ruth Franklin wrote an extensive biography called Shirley Jackson: A Haunted Life. I plan on reading it in the near future and if anyone else is also interested, I'd love to hear from you and discuss it further. As always, you can comment in the section below, or contact me directly via my email firstname.lastname@example.org.