Where to Start with Shirley Jackson

By Amanda Pagan, Children's Librarian
December 14, 2018
Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library (SNFL)

A master of Gothic mystery and horror, Shirley Jackson’s novels and short stories still resonate with readers more than fifty years after her death, due in part to her uncanny ability to pierce the outward polite facade of her characters to reveal the true, terrifying side of humanity that lurks underneath. Generations of readers have been left speechless and spellbound by the horror and tragedy of The Haunting of Hill House, one of the greatest ghost stories ever written. Her short story “The Lottery” has remained a staple of short story anthologies since it was first published in 1948, and it is probably the most well-known American short story of the 20th century. Today we look back on her life and her successes in honor of her birthday.

Shirley Hardie Jackson was born December 14, 1916 in San Francisco, California. In 1937, she attended Syracuse University where she published her first short story, “Janice,” and became an editor for a campus magazine. It was while attending Syracuse that she met, fell in love with, and eventually married Stanley Edgar Hyman, a fellow student who would eventually become a literary critic and professor at Bennington College. She remained on the East Coast for the rest of her life, eventually settling in North Bennington, Vermont with her husband and family. The couple became well-known for their cocktail parties which were often frequented by the great literary masters of their time such as Ralph Ellison. 

Jackson steadfastly pursued her writing while simultaneously balancing her role as wife and mother to four children., publishing her first novel, The Road Through the Wall in 1948. Her two memoirs, Life Among the Savages (1953) and Raising Demons (1957), detail her family life and offer a rare glimpse into the mundane, every-day reality of one of the greatest horror writers of all time. Her short stories were frequently featured in literary magazines such as the New Yorker, and her work has often been adapted for both the stage and screen. The Haunting of Hill House was published in 1959 and has since been adapted twice for film, as The Haunting (1963) and The Haunting (1999), twice for the stage, and most recently as the basis of a Netflix original series.

Many of her short stories gained national recognition for their unflinching presentation of slow-mounting, psychological and/or spiritual terror such as “Come Dance with Me in Ireland” which won the Best American Short Stories award in 1944, and “The Lottery,” which won the O. Henry Prize Stories award in 1949. In 1961, Jackson won the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Short Story for "Louisa, Please Come Home". Time Magazine included We Have Always Lived in the Castle in their list of Ten Best Novels of the year for 1962.


On August 8, 1965, Jackson died of heart failure in her home at the age of 48. At the time of her death, she had written six novels, two memoirs, and over 200 short stories with two novels left unfinished. Her undisputed status as one of the greatest female horror writers of all time, as well as, her influence on future masters of horror, such as Stephen King and Richard Matheson, cannot be understated or underappreciated. In 2007, the annual Shirley Jackson Awards were "established for outstanding achievement in the literature of horror, the dark fantastic, and psychological suspense."


Today we honor her birthday by bringing a list of recommended reading guaranteed to thrill new and veteran fans of her work!


The Road Through the Wall (1948)

Everyone knew the residents of Pepper Street were "nice" people—especially the residents themselves. Among the self-satisfied group were: Mrs. Merriam, the sanctimonious shrew who was turning her husband into a nonentity and her daughter into a bigoted spinster; Mr. Roberts, who found relief from the street's unending propriety in shoddy side-street amours; Miss Fielding, who considered it more important to boil an egg properly than to save a disturbed girl from destruction. It took the gruesome act of a desperate boy who lived among them to pierce the shell of their complacency and force them to see their own ugliness.

Hangsaman (1951)

Seventeen-year-old Natalie Waite longs to escape home for college. Her father is a domineering and egotistical writer who keeps a tight rein on Natalie and her long-suffering mother. When Natalie finally does get away, however, college life doesn’t bring the happiness she expected. Little by little, Natalie is no longer certain of anything—even where reality ends and her dark imaginings begin. Chilling and suspenseful, Hangsaman is loosely based on the real-life disappearance of a Bennington College sophomore in 1946.

The Bird's Nest (1954)

Elizabeth is a demure twenty-three-year-old whiling her life away at a dull museum job, living with her neurotic aunt, and subsisting off her dead mother's inheritance. When Elizabeth begins to suffer terrible migraines and backaches, her aunt takes her to the doctor, then to a psychiatrist. But slowly, and with Jackson's characteristic chill, we learn that Elizabeth is not just one girl—but four separate, self-destructive personalities.

The Sundial (1958)

When the Halloran clan gathers at the family home for a funeral, no one is surprised when the somewhat peculiar Aunt Fanny wanders off into the secret garden. But then she returns to report an astonishing vision of an apocalypse from which only the Hallorans and their hangers-on will be spared, and the family finds itself engulfed in growing madness, fear, and violence as they prepare for a terrible new world.

The Haunting of Hill House (1959)

First published in 1959, Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House has been hailed as a perfect work of unnerving terror. It is the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a "haunting"; Theodora, his lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers—and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962)

Two sisters, Merricat and Constance Blackwood, live in a mansion that is, at times, compared to a castle. Merricat might be a witch while the unwanted visitor to their house, Charles, may or may not be a ghost or a demon.  


Meanwhile, most of the villagers hate and fear the two sisters, who have been living in seclusion with their ailing uncle ever since a poisoned sugar bowl killed the rest of the Blackwood family.


Graphic Novels

Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" : the authorized graphic adaptation written and illustrated by Miles Hyman

In a graphic-novel adaptation of the classic spine-tingler, the grandson of the story's original author depicts the eerie town and their shocking ritual in detailed four-color panels that breathe new life into the iconic tale.



Short Story Collections 

Dark Tales by Shirley Jackson; foreword by Ottessa Moshfegh

For the first time in one volume, a collection of Shirley Jackson's scariest stories, with a foreword by PEN/Hemingway Award winner Ottessa Moshfegh.


After the publication of her short story "The Lottery" in the New Yorker in 1948 received an unprecedented amount of attention, Shirley Jackson was quickly established as a master horror storyteller. This collection of classic and newly reprinted stories provides readers with more of her unsettling, dark tales, including the "The Possibility of Evil" and "The Summer People."


In these deliciously dark stories, the daily commute turns into a nightmarish game of hide and seek, the loving wife hides homicidal thoughts and the concerned citizen might just be an infamous serial killer. In the haunting world of Shirley Jackson, nothing is as it seems and nowhere is safe, from the city streets to the crumbling country pile, and from the small-town apartment to the dark, dark woods. There's something sinister in suburbia. 


Let Me Tell You : New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings by Shirley Jackson; edited by Laurence Jackson Hyman and Sarah Hyman DeWitt; foreword by Ruth Franklin

As we approach the centenary of [Jackson's] birth comes this astonishing compilation of fifty-six pieces—more than forty of which have never been published before. Two of Jackson's children co-edited this volume, culling through the vast archives of their mothers paper's at the Library of Congress, selecting only the very best for inclusion.

The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson

The Lottery and Other Stories, the only one to appear during Shirley Jackson's lifetime, unites "The Lottery" with twenty-four equally unusual short stories. Together they demonstrate Jackson's remarkable range—from the hilarious to the horrible, the unsettling to the ominous—and her power as a storyteller.

Come Along with Me : Classic Short Stories and an Unfinished Novel by Shirley Jackson; edited by Stanley Edgar Hyman; foreword by Laura Miller

In her gothic visions of small-town America, Jackson, the author of such masterworks as The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, turns an ordinary world into a supernatural nightmare. This eclectic collection goes beyond her horror writing, revealing the full spectrum of her literary genius. In addition to Come Along with Me, Jackson's unfinished novel about the quirky inner life of a lonely widow, it features sixteen short stories and three lectures she delivered during her last years.

Life Among the Savages (1953) by Shirley Jackson

In a hilariously charming domestic memoir, America's celebrated master of terror turns to a different kind of fright: raising children. In her celebrated fiction, Shirley Jackson explored the darkness lurking beneath the surface of small-town America. But in Life Among the Savages, she takes on the lighter side of small-town life.


In this witty and warm memoir of her family's life in rural Vermont, she delightfully exposes a domestic side in cheerful contrast to her quietly terrifying fiction. With a novelist's gift for character, an unfailing maternal instinct, and her signature humor, Jackson turns everyday family experiences into brilliant adventures.


Raising Demons (1957)

In the sequel to Life Among the Savages, Shirley Jackson's four children have grown from savages into full-fledged demons. The clan moves into a larger home, and the chaos moves with them. A confrontation with the IRS, Little League, trumpet lessons, and enough clutter to bury her alive—Shirley spins them all into a reminder that every bit as thrilling as a murderous family in a haunted house is a happy family in a new home.


Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin

This long-awaited biography establishes Shirley Jackson as a towering figure in American literature and revives the life and work of a neglected master. Still known to millions only as the author of the "The Lottery," Shirley Jackson (1916-1965) remains curiously absent from the American literary canon. A genius of literary suspense, Jackson plumbed the cultural anxiety of postwar America better than anyone. Now, biographer Ruth Franklin reveals the tumultuous life and inner darkness of the author behind such classics as The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. 

Placing Jackson within an American Gothic tradition of Hawthorne and Poe, Franklin demonstrates how her unique contribution to this genre came from her focus on "domestic horror" drawn from an era hostile to women. Based on a wealth of previously undiscovered correspondence and dozens of new interviews, Shirley Jackson, with its exploration of astonishing talent shaped by a damaged childhood and a troubled marriage to literary critic Stanley Hyman, becomes the definitive biography of a generational avatar and an American literary giant.

Literary Criticism

Shirley Jackson's American Gothicby Darryl Hattenhauer

Best known for her short story "The Lottery" and her novel The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson produced a body of work that is more varied and complex than critics have realized. In fact, as Darryl Hattenhauer argues here, Jackson was one of the few writers to anticipate the transition from modernism to postmodernism, and therefore ranks among the most significant writers of her time.

The first comprehensive study of all of Jackson's fiction, Shirley Jackson's American Gothic offers readers the chance not only to rediscover her work, but also to see how and why a major American writer was passed over for inclusion in the canon of American literature. 

Movie Adaptations

The Haunting (1963)

Based on the novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson.

Dr. John Markway, an anthropologist with an interest in psychic phenomena, takes two specially selected women to Hill House, a reportedly haunted mansion. Eleanor (Julie Harris), a lonely, eccentric woman with a supernatural event in her past, and the bold Theodora (Claire Bloom), who has ESP, join John and the mansion's heir, cynical Luke (Russ Tamblyn). They are immediately overwhelmed by strange sounds and events, and Eleanor comes to believe the house is alive and speaking directly to her.