Jackson, Shirley (1916-1965)

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Jackson, Shirley (1916-1965)

About her short story "The Lottery," Shirley Jackson wrote, "It was not my first published story, nor my last, but I have been assured over and over that if it had been the only story I ever wrote or published, there would be people who would not forget my name." First printed in the New Yorker in June of 1948, the chilling story of ritual violence generated more mail to the magazine than any piece of fiction before or since, and hundreds of shocked readers canceled their subscriptions. Since then, "The Lottery" has been translated into hundreds of languages and made into a radio play, two television plays, a ballet, and even an opera. It is ubiquitous in short story anthologies and part of the required curriculum of many high school English programs.

The story concerns a ceremonial custom in a small, unnamed town. With masterful strokes, Jackson builds a sense of trepidation and horror, describing a perfectly normal village making preparations for their annual lottery. Children gather piles of stones as the villagers arrive, excited and nervous, in the town square. The ritual is performed with the utmost seriousness and formality, with a few murmurs about other towns giving up their lotteries. Finally, Mrs. Hutchinson's name is chosen and the villagers stone her to death.

Jackson avoided graphic violence or gross-out horror at all times. Her no-words-wasted style is especially evident in the last line of "The Lottery": "'It isn't fair, it isn't right,' Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her." The ugly flow of blood that must accompany her appalling end is left to the imagination of the reader.

The torrent of mail that descended on the New Yorker offices could broadly be divided into three categories. Some readers wrote to demand an explanation for the story; others wrote abusive letters, venting their spleen against Jackson for her "sick" surprise ending. The most bizarre and disturbing response came from those who inquired where these lotteries took place, and whether they could go and watch. Jackson generally refused to explain the meaning of the story, but suggested in private to at least one friend that anti-Semitism in North Bennington, Vermont was at its heart. (Her husband, literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, was Jewish.) On another occasion she told a journalist, "I suppose I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal rite in the present and in my own village, to shock the readers with a graphic demonstration of the pointless violence and general inhumanity of their own lives [but] I gather that in some cases the mind just rebels. The number of people who expected Mrs. Hutchinson to win a Bendix washer at the end would amaze you."

Shirley Jackson was born in San Francisco on December 14, 1916 (not 1919, as in some accounts), and grew up in California and in Rochester, New York. She graduated from Syracuse University in 1940 and married Stanley Edgar Hyman. They settled in North Bennington, Vermont, in 1945, where they owned an enormous library and hosted dinner parties for guests who included literary luminaries Bernard Malamud, Ralph Ellison, and Dylan Thomas. They also raised four children.

Dubbed "the queen of the macabre," Jackson wrote dozens of short stories, most of which, like "The Lottery," concerned gothic terrors lurking just beneath the surface of everyday life. In addition, she authored a series of darkly funny stories about her family's bustling home life, collected in Life Among the Savages (1953) and Raising Demons (1957). Unlike many horror writers, she had an elegant way with the English language. Famously, one critic wrote, "Miss Jackson seemingly cannot write a poor sentence."

Her novels The Haunting of Hill House (1959) and We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962) are classics of the horror genre. Her understated yet intensely powerful brand of horror inspired even Stephen King, who dedicated his novel Firestarter "In memory of Shirley Jackson, who never had to raise her voice." King also wrote that Eleanor Vance, the heroine of The Haunting of Hill House, "is surely the finest character to come out of this new [identity-centered] American gothic tradition," and, coupling her with Henry James, asserted that this novel and The Turn of the Screw are "the only two great novels of the supernatural in the last hundred years." In 1963, The Haunting of Hill House was made into a horror film, The Haunting. Directed in Britain by Robert Wise, it failed to live up to the standard of the book but, in keeping with Jackson's literary style, no violence is shown directly, and an aura of fear pervades the film from start to finish.

A sometime witch, Jackson claimed she could bring kitchen implements to the top of a drawer by "calling" them. She was an excessive smoker, drinker, and eater, and a workaholic writer prone to debilitating anxiety. After intense periods of productivity, she would endure periods of serious depression, and also suffered on and off from asthma. She died of heart failure in North Bennington on August 8, 1965.

—Jessy Randall

Further Reading:

Hall, Joan Wylie. Shirley Jackson: A Study of the Short Fiction. Twayne's Studies in Short Fiction, No. 42. New York, Twayne, 1993.

King, Stephen. Danse Macabre. New York, Everest House, 1981.

Oppenheimer, Judy. Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson. New York, Putnam, 1988.

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Jackson, Shirley (1916-1965)

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