Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life. By Ruth Franklin. Liveright; 607 pages; $35 and £25.
NEARLY 70 years after it was first published, Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery”, is still chilling. It begins benignly: on an otherwise “clear and sunny” day, every household in an unnamed village gathers to draw lots. But this unfussy account of an arcane local ritual ends with screams. “It isn’t fair,” cries the woman with the marked slip as everyone, even her own children, pelts her with stones.
Never before had the New Yorker, which printed the story, received so much mail about a work of fiction. Calling it “shocking” and “pointless”, many outraged readers cancelled their subscriptions. Others were simply confused. Jackson, then a 31-year-old mother of two and pregnant again, wrote the story in a single sitting, but was never able to offer consistent explanation for what it was about. The notion that otherwise ordinary villagers were capable of such extraordinary inhumanity seemed fairly obvious to her, especially after the second world war.
Jackson would complete ten books for adults—two of them bestsellers—before she died of heart failure at 48 in 1965. Yet she is still known primarily for “The Lottery”, which was published in an anthology of American classics for students as early as 1950. This oversight of her other work is a shame, writes Ruth Franklin in her lively and authoritative new biography. The problem, she suggests, is that critics have tended to underestimate Jackson’s haunting stories, often dismissing them as genre fiction. But the author needs to be seen among such American Gothic masters as Henry James and Edgar Allan Poe, who used terror as a way to reveal the darkest corners of the psyche.
Jackson wrote mostly about women. Before the rise of feminism, she considered those who wanted to be more than obedient wives and mothers. Many of her novels, particularly her late, great “The Haunting of Hill House” (1959) and “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” (1962), essentially transform a home into a prison. Quite a few of her heroines go mad. Even as Jackson sold amusing essays to women’s magazines about her madcap life with four children and a hapless husband, her menacing fiction revealed the turmoil roiling beneath the surface. “Her body of work constitutes nothing less than the secret history of American women of her era,” Ms Franklin writes.
Born to a well-to-do family, Jackson always felt an outsider. She never met the expectations of her mother, who would criticise her all her life. Ms Franklin suggests that this toxic relationship not only informed Jackson’s fiction (her heroines are all “essentially motherless” ), but also prepared her for marriage to Stanley Edgar Hyman, a literary critic she met at university, who tormented her with his cruelty and infidelity. As both a housewife and breadwinner, Jackson struggled to balance life and work (like many men of his generation, Hyman refused to lift a finger at home). But she found that motherhood helped her writing, as it forced her to concentrate during the few hours she could steal at her typewriter.
Hyman’s hectoring and her mother’s apparent disdain steadily eroded Jackson’s confidence and precipitated an extended bout of agoraphobia, which imprisoned her in her home. She seemed destined to live the remainder of her days like one of the lonely and anxious characters from her stories. But she began writing and lecturing again before she died. Jackson may have been unable to venture out on her own, but she plotted her escape in her fiction. In a novel she began writing before she died, the narrator abandons her husband and children and takes a room in a boarding house. “All I had”, she writes, “was myself.”