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Shirley Jackson: The Daughter of Poe or the Mother of Stephen King?

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New American Gothic

Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”, The Haunting of Hill House, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and other works join the classics by Hawthorne and Poe.

Stephen King also mentions her work as an important inspiration for him.


I think it’s kind of a shame that all I’ve really known of Shirley Jackson, until now, is the story “The Lottery”.  None of the other stories in the collection I read had such a surreal bent to it; the horror in most of her stories comes from her exposure of all the thoughts and feelings that we cover up, even from ourselves.  If the only Shirley Jackson story you know it “The Lottery” (that’s the one where the town gathers together for the annual ritual that turns Biblical), you might find you like her other stories better, especially if you prefer psychological horror.

That’s what messes with me. Blood and gore either just makes me squeamish or it makes me laugh. Case in point, I laughed a lot of my way through Midsommar, while my friend who likes horror was disturbed for weeks. She’s never letting me take her to our local “art house” again. Yeah, you do have to be a former English major to deal with that level of perverseness, no question.

Jackson’s life seems to touch on a lot of the things I think we want to forget about the latter half of the 20th century; the things that really scared us because we didn’t want to admit to them. Over the years, it almost seems as though she sucked this anxiety into her body as she dealt with a number of ailments having to do with anxiety and depression.

I guess you felt almost required to be happy after what so many people went through in the 1940’s, so whatever negative feelings you had must be kept inside. Who would dare to be unhappy with domestic bliss in those times?

So women went the other way. Seriously, have you ever seen photos of the pink kitchens from the 50’s? What was that covering up?


This is a 1956 advertisement for HotPoint because you needed pink appliances. Real, pink appliances! I’ve read that the pink kitchen craze was inspired by Mamie Eisenhower, but still, you only have one kitchen in your home and usually the whole family, and especially the cook, spends a lot of time in there. Think about it.

And one of the biggest TV stars of the day, the one we all still know, are not any of the perfect TV moms, but Lucille Ball. She was the power member of her real-life marriage with Desi Arnaz, and quite a trail blazer too (marrying a Cuban in the 50’s was considered kind of scandalous), but she could only be the power member of her TV marriage by being the nutty wife ever to Ricky’s paternal grin. So that’s another way to deal with it.

Laughter and horror: the two go hand in hand. And Shirley Jackson went another way.

Shirley Jackson is known for her short stories and most particularly for her horror stories, but ironically her she also wrote “domestic comedy” for which she is not so well remembered.  But when you look at her “domestic comedy” books and her horror books…the gap narrows. Are they really so different? I haven’t nearly read all of her stories and books, but to me the similarities are clear…and she wants you to see them. For example, her second memoir is called “Raising Demons”, which to me sounds funny and innocuous, but the epigraph is the Conjuration from the Grimoire of Honorius.  Sounds like a less innocent version of a Harry Potter spell.

Since I have this thing called the Internet, I looked it up and it is apparently a forged book of spells meant to fool ignorant priests, if you believe Wikipedia.  Another example of how truth is stranger than fiction.  You can’t make this stuff up!


I’m kind of getting an image of a scene from a “Dick and Jane” book with an evil carnival clown hiding in the toy box.


So I am really starting to wonder about this person named Shirley Jackson (the author one, not the physicist), and exactly what was going on in her brain.  After I’ve had the chance to read even more of her work, I would like to also check out her biography so I can find out how my guesses all fit together.   

Shirley Jackson’s biographer, Ruth Franklin, compares Jackson with Edgar Allan Poe (remember the “Tell-Tale Heart”?) and Nathaniel Hawthorne (The Scarlet Letter??) for her work in American Gothic.  She is said to influence a wide range of authors, including Stephen King.  

Whatever you read, you won’t be able to put it down!

This is a good adaptation of The Scarlet Letter although again, you lose a lot of the psychological suspense if you don’t read it. I don’t like the 1995 Demi Moore version.

I do like the older PBS miniseries with Meg Foster and John Heard if you can find it (and don’t want to read the book, which you should except for “The Custom House” at the beginning, which is long and boring and loses a lot of people). The excellent video below gives you the crux of the emotion in the story and the climactic scene from the miniseries (labelled for educational purposes only, which I assume means the creator doesn’t have rights, so please educate yourselves).

As a special “thank you” from The Lois Level, here’s a Halloween treat: “The Lottery”, the newly (2013) discovered story “Paranoia”, and several more of Jackson’s stories are freely available from the New Yorker. Click and they’re yours to read.

 


Reading Times for texts in this article:

Quick Reads:

Individual short stories by Jackson and Poe, Fansided article on film adaptations of Jackson’s work (link below)

Sustained Reads:

Jackson’s novels and memoirs, Jackson biography, The Scarlet Letter

Free Reads:

Fansided article (below)

Classic Shirley Jackson stories from The New Yorker (below)


In recent years, Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House has been made into a Netflix series and a feature film.

Her novel, We Have Always Live in the Castle, was released as a feature film in 2018.

You might have seen this film of “The Lottery” in English class; it was made by the BBC in the 60’s. A new film is in development.

There are numerous audio versions of “The Lottery” available on youtube. I think the verrry posh enunciation of this version serves the material well.

More videos you might remember from English class. Personally, I prefer to read Poe because he is SO psychological, and with the stories, you don’t know what is real and what isn’t, but here’s a good film if you want it.


This collection has 50 stories, many that were found in her barn in the 90’s along with many that are previously uncollected. If you like Jackson, this book will keep you busy with Quick Reads for a long time!

Please enjoy this full text Quick Read on film adaptations of Shirley Jackson’s work.

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