Like most U.S. students of my generation I was introduced to the work of Shirley Jackson through her story “The Lottery.” A small town in Vermont is the setting for “The Lottery,” and the town square where the locals gather to ritually stone to death one of their citizens was based on the square in North Bennington where the author lived. Jackson told one friend the story was about anti-Semitism, a prejudice she felt keenly in North Bennington.
My personal favorite from Jackson is We Have Always Lived in the Castle. In that novel, Jackson embodies two aspects of her personality into two eccentric, damaged sisters: one hypersensitive and frightened, unable to leave the house, the other a sort of devious prankster who may or may not have murdered the rest of her family for her fragile sister’s sake.
But it seems that when October rolls around each year all that folks remember is Jackson’s supernatural tale The Haunting of Hill House. According to Laura Miller’s excellent introduction to the 2006 Penguin Classic edition, “Like all good ghost stories, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House sets a trap for its protagonist.”
Shirley Jackson wrote about the mundane evils hidden in everyday life and about the warring and subsuming of selves in a family, a community and sometimes even in a single mind. She wrote about prejudice, neurosis and identity. An unfortunate impression persists (one Jackson encouraged, for complicated reasons) that her work is full of ghosts and witches. In truth, few of her greatest stories and just one of her novels, The Haunting of Hill House, contain a suggestion of genuinely supernatural events. Jackson’s forté was psychology and society, people in other words — people disturbed, dispossessed, misunderstanding or thwarting one another compulsively, people colluding absently in monstrous acts. She had a jeweler’s eye for the microscopic degrees by which a personality creeps into madness or a relationship turns from dependence to exploitation.
You can read more about Jackson and The Haunting of Hill House here.