Thoughts on Shirley Jackson

I should go ahead and warn you up front: this is not a book review. This is the raving of an avid fan.

How it took me so long to really discover Shirley Jackson I don’t know. I did read her infamous short story “The Lottery” in high school, and although I liked it (of course I did), it never occurred to me to look up the author and read her other work. To be entirely honest, I’m glad I didn’t. For one thing, discovering a true master is such a thrill I would’ve begrudged my younger self. But more importantly, I’m not sure I would have appreciated Jackson’s stories. These are subtle, sophisticated works.

I also read The Haunting of Hill House as an adult, although I don’t think I directly connected it as the same author of “The Lottery.” I did love that short novel enough to put it in my “favorites” list of about 35 books, but not quite enough to rave about her here. But this collection of short stories was spectacular.

I’m going to have to calm myself down enough to fill you all in, aren’t I? Oh, fine. Shirley Jackson was writing most of her work around the first half to middle of the twentieth century, which makes her active shortly after H.P. Lovecraft and M.R. James (Can I just take a moment to applaud her for not initializing her name to appear male?) and roughly contemporary with Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson.

Jackson’s short stories are quite the mixed bag of tricks. If you’ve only read “The Lottery” you might assume that she writes all horror, but you’d be wrong. She does indeed capture horror incredibly well in a few of her stories, but by and large it’s not her main wheelhouse. So what does Jackson write? A little bit of almost everything, really.

A Jackson protagonist is usually youngish, female, and isolated in some way. Her stories take place in city apartments and country houses. Her protagonists live in a world of unstable reality, of subtle yet looming madness, of identities centered, found, and lost in the home. Her characters are sometimes dynamic but usually static – but they are always complex, vivid, and wonderfully flawed.

Some of you may remember my list of 5 Underrated Artistic Qualities. Well, Shirley Jackson nails them all — which perhaps explains why I now consider her one of the most underrated authors of all time. Her writing is compelling and tragic and horrifying and important, but at times her wit is so sharp and humor so biting that I snorted aloud even though I was home by myself. She doesn’t care if you “like” her protagonists. She only writes when she has something to say, and her characters inevitably find a way to say it – even though it will be a question whispered in your ear more often than a tidy moral spelled out at the end. Of all her finer qualities, one of her keenest is her subtlety. Jackson doesn’t patronize readers. She doesn’t scream and jump around and beg for attention. She makes art and lets you read it.

Also well worth noting: remember how I complained about sexism and racism in my last two “Not Quite Book Reviews”? Well, Shirley Jackson doesn’t have those problems. Don’t get me wrong; she deals with the topics. But when she deals with them it is intentional. Jackson doesn’t seem racist; some her characters are, and the tragedy of that is shown. Jackson isn’t sexist; her characters are women and they deal with sexism in ways that enlighten the problem for the reader. After coming off of two classic authors who scarcely even had female characters, I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to read Jackson’s stories populated with women. What a crazy notion! The thought that if she were writing today she would likely be shelved under “women’s fiction” and largely overlooked… it makes me sad.

All of that, and I still haven’t come to my very favorite thing about Shirley Jackson. The woman is fearless. I often hear “edgy” authors called “bold,” “brave,” or “ risky,” but I think those adjectives are too often misapplied. Using shock value takes some guts, yes, but those authors tend to keep using shock value. What’s so brave about continuing to use something that works?

Shirley Jackson has her share of shock value, but she doesn’t rely on it. She doesn’t force every story into a twist or open each one with a hook or add in gratuitous scandal. She moves from tragedy to comedy to horror to surrealism to satire with no hesitation, no qualms. In Jackson’s world, the mundanity of a dissatisfied character’s life is every bit as important as the severed limb that washes ashore – and that is as it should be. Her moments of comedy are all the more outrageous amidst her pessimism. Her moments of horror are all the more shocking in their placement among the real and the ordinary.

Shirley Jackson makes the artistic decisions I wish I were brave enough to make, and she executes them with skill, grace, and quality. She is simply brilliant.

As far as stand-outs: The version I read was by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and included twenty-five stories. “The Lottery” is the most famous, and is well worth a read both for its position as a cultural cornerstone and because it’s really that good (although the first time you read it is by far the best; don’t let anyone spoil it for you). But by far the most chilling story (to me) was “The Tooth.” I can’t get it out of my freaking head. Three stories that struck me as so realistic and shocking that I was outraged are “Like Mother Used to Make,” “Men with Their Big Shoes,” and “The Witch.” “My Life with R. H. Macy” is hilarious. “The Renegade” and “The Dummy” are both surprisingly unsettling. And “Flower Garden” is heartbreaking.

Read her. Love her. Report back – unless you’re not a fan, and then you’re dead to me. (Kidding, kidding. I promise not to hate you if we have different taste. I might judge you, though.)

Have you read Shirley Jackson? If not, will you? (Please?)

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  • Cynthia Robertson

    Oh yes, I adore her. I haven’t read her in ages, Annie, but you make me want to run to the library right now! Such a wonderful writer. I need to spend some time with her work again soon.

    Funny we both posted fan raves this week!

    • Oh, I’ll have to go check out yours! Glad to hear Jackson has another fan. 🙂

  • “The Lottery” is the only Shirley Jackson story I’ve read, but I’ll definitely be adding her to my tbr list. I love your enthusiasm!

  • Regina

    “She makes art and lets you read it.”
    So, so, so LOVE this!

  • I love Hill House, but I haven’t read any of her short fiction. I’m not sure I even read The Lottery. I’ll need to add that to my list!

  • Traci Kenworth

    You’ve convinced me!!

  • Paula L. Harvey

    I haven’t had a chance to read her work yet, I’m going to have to check it out! Thanks for sharing this Annie!

  • staci troilo

    I thought she was a one-hit wonder. I love “The Lottery.” It’s stuck with me for years. Now I’m going to have to go check out the rest of her work. Thanks for the post.

    • As far as short stories go, “The Lottery” made a huge splash when it appeared in the New Yorker, but she also had numerous short stories published after that. But her other most famous work is her short novel The Haunting of Hill House, which most people now know from the movie adaptations. It’s also very good and worth a read!

      • staci troilo

        I saw a version of the movie… I’m definitely going to check out Hill House, and her other works as well. Thanks for making us (re)aware of her forgotten talent.

        • As always, the book is better than the movie! 😉 I’m happy to have reminded people of her. Thanks very much for the comments!

  • jclementwall

    Wow, perfect timing, Annie! I just went through a bag of second-hand books (that has been tucked in a closet, unbeknownst to me, like a secret treasure), and there is a Shirley Jackson book: COME ALONG WITH ME (part of a novel, 16 stories, 3 lectures). SO excited to read it now. I love when you do that to me! 🙂

    • Oh yay! I haven’t read that one. Definitely let me know how you like it, because I might pick it up too! (We Have Always Lived in the Castle is next on my list for her.) Thanks j.

  • Nancy Christie

    Re COME ALONG WITH ME: One of the best parts is the lecture, which talks about fiction writing. I often use it when I teach my classes. In general, Shirley Jackson is a phenomenal writer–as you said, she doesn’t beat you over the head with the strangeness of life, she just slides it in so gently that you don’t even know you’ve gone over that edge until you’re standing looking down into a ravine, hoping you don’t fall but somehow knowing you will.
    I recommend reading everything you can get your hands on when it comes to Ms. Jackson!

    • Yes, so well said Nancy! I’m less interested I nonfiction, but you’ve convinced me. Come Along with Me goes on my list too!

  • Melissa Crytzer Fry

    Are you sure you weren’t a saleswoman in a different life? Because – woo wee, woman – you sold the snot out of Shirley Jackson. And now I need to go re-read The Lottery, because it’s been THAT many years. Sounds like a great ‘study’ for craft.

    • Haha! I’m flattered. 🙂 And she really is an excellent study for craft!

  • This was such a great raving RAVE. I think you’ll appreciate this . . . my mom is constantly telling me that Shirley Jackson wrote The Lottery one day while her kids were napping. I hear that as “get on the stick, Nina.” 😉

    • Thanks Nina! Your mom sounds like my kind of people. 😉 I didn’t know that though — how cool!

  • Marialena Carr

    Annie, once more you’ve stoked the fire of inspiration. I’ve read some Shirley Jackson but now I feel I MUST read more.

  • Julia Munroe Martin

    Thank you for introducing me to another new author! She sounds amazing, and I will have to read… but I have a terrible toothache right now and having just checked out THE TOOTH on amazon and read the first page, I may wait to read the rest. 😉 Seriously, like Cynthia, I will be running to the library and may start with THE LOTTERY instead!

    • Oh gosh. “The Tooth” is definitely NOT the story to read if you already have a toothache!! “The Lottery” is a great one to start with, because that’s the one most people have read and often reference. It’s always good to be in the know on cultural powerhouses like that!

  • A. B. Davis


    I decided to give Jackson a read at the prompting of this post, and you did not lead me astray. I had read “The Lottery” in college, and that was the extent of my experience with her. After acquiring a copy of her novels and stories from the university library, I must agree with you on “The Tooth” and “The Renegade” and “The Witch”–my favorite. 🙂 And I LOVED We Have Always Lived in the Castle–I don’t think your version had that, but if you haven’t read it, it’s magnificent. Overall, your general characterization of Jackson’s works is so spot on and makes me appreciate her all the more.

    What you’ve said here about her not pulling all stops in every story is intriguing. I think a lot of people assume that short stories must end with an explosion. I certainly thought this way when I first began drafting some short stories, but subtlety, when done well, is even more impressive. It reminds me of the end of O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” or Chopin’s “Story of An Hour” versus the end of Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” (the first stories that popped into my head to compare to, though they are among my favorites. All women authors too, hmmm). While “The Lottery” falls more in the camp with the explosiveness of the O’Connor and Chopin stories, most of her stories are more akin to the quiet, realistic, though often eerie unraveling toward which Oates’s story progresses. Thanks for guiding me back to an old author who is a new favorite. 🙂 I look forward to getting to The Haunting of Hill House and The Bird’s Nest–do you have any interest in reading that?

    My ratings are here:

    Though my non-review will be no where near as interesting as your “ravings of an avid fan” have been 😉

    • AWESOME! I’m so stoked that you took my recommendation and loved it!! Thank you for coming back and telling me! I’m thrilled that you’ve renewed your love. 🙂

      When it’s pulled off properly, I am almost always pro-subtlety. It sticks with me longer and impresses me more. I know what you mean about “The Lottery” being explosive plot-wise, but it’s still subtly rendered. Imagine how different it would be, for comparison, if the same concept were written by Stephen King or Dean Koontz. See what I mean?

      We Have Always Lived in the Castle actually wasn’t in my collection; that one’s on my list, as is The Bird’s Nest and Come Along With Me. There’s not enough time!

    • Ashley, I just listened to We Have Always Lived in the Castle on audio when I was out of town this weekend, and I LOVED it!! Jackson is phenomenally talented. Why isn’t she talked about more?!

      • A. B. Davis

        I dont know why, but it’s a damn shame. I’m so glad you enjoyed it too! I thought you would. It’s genius. Is The Haunting of Hill House that good too?

        • I think so! They’re very different, though. I happen to like the tone of Castle slightly more than Haunting, but they’re equally brilliant IMO.

          • A. B. Davis

            I do love the tone of We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The entire story is that it is masterfully wrought all around, even those elusive elements like tone. Btw, I saw that you had rated it five stars on Goodreads and I was like “yeah!”, and then I was like, why didn’t I? And it made me think of one of your posts where you said you don’t rate the books you read according to some cosmic scale of awful to awesome, rather, that they’re each individually rated for what they are. Though I appreciate your diplomatic intentions, I’m totally guilty of using that cosmic scale : I might have to rethink this.

          • Haha, you have a good memory! Yes, that is how I rate things. I simply can’t bring myself to compare things that aren’t meant to be compared. How can I rank an intentionally light-hearted romance novel on the same scale as earth-shattering literary fiction? I also sort of compromise between “how good it is” and “how much I liked it.” They don’t always match, you know? Sometimes I can appreciate something without it moving me, and other times I can loves something that has obvious flaws.

          • A. B. Davis

            When you say I have a good memory, you really mean I sound like a stalker, don’t you? 😉 I totally know what you mean about things that carry you along, that you lose yourself in, not necessarily being “good”. Just like other forms of entertainment, drawing or watching a movie, for instance; sometimes you want to doodle something fun or watch a chick flick, and other times you want to paint something requires splashing your soul onto the canvas or you want to watch Dead Poets Society.

            Well, at any rate, you make a very good case for this individualized rating system. I have some ratings to rethink… 🙂

          • Not at all! :)~ I’m actually wondering what questionable things I’ve said before that you remember perfectly…

            Re-rating everything would be quite a task!

  • kozad

    I just read “Flower Garden” today. It floored me. The manipulation of the reader’s expectations through Jackson’s use of the narrator’s point of view (at first guileless, and later of a piece with the cold insularity of the townspeople) is masterful, and demands a rereading of the story. I am enjoying each story of Jackon’s, whether creepy, depressing, or almost quotidian. Many of us have read “The Lottery.” That is just the gateway drug. Not to dis that ur-parable, but her other stories, richer in detail, are amazing.

    • The gateway drug, yes. I totally agree! I love “The Lottery,” but her other work deserves so much more recognition than it gets. She’s truly a master.