Graham Sleight’s Yesterday’s Tomorrows: Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson evades description. She published her work in venues like the New Yorker, Harper’s, and the Saturday Evening Post, yet her sense of the uncanny plainly discomfited her readers. She has been enormously influential on the field of the fantastic, yet it’s rare indeed to find her depicting overtly fantastic events. She’s an enormously subversive writer, yet she has now been safely canonised in the Library of America, in a comprehensive volume whose contents were selected by Joyce Carol Oates. Oates’s selection is almost unarguable, comprising Jackson’s one collection of stories, The Lottery (1949), her two most famous novels, The Haunting of Hill House (1959) and We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), together with a selection of otherwise uncollected stories. My only reservation is that it would have been helpful also to have had The Sundial (1948) included, as of her four other novels it’s her most substantial achievement and the one with most in common with the works in this volume.

The first challenge Jackson sets the reader is that of understanding her profoundly ironic tone. Perhaps the place to start with this is ‘‘The Summer People’’ (1950), a story that’s just about readable as social satire but which makes far more sense as horror. It pivots on the idea that the wealthy from places like New York may own summer houses in the country, but will always leave them by the time summer is over – by, say, Labor Day weekend. The Allisons are a happily retired couple in just this position. But, having no jobs to return to any more, they have no need to return home. So they decide, almost on a whim, to stay behind at their cottage by the lake. The first few pages of the story are taken up with semi-comic responses from their various neighbours. For instance, Mrs. Babcock the grocer says ‘‘I’d hate to leave… but I never heard of anyone staying out at the lake after Labor Day before.’’ It becomes clear that, for instance, they won’t be able to get any heating oil from their usual supplier beyond then. But they press on doggedly. Then they receive a letter from their grown son Jerry. Although it’s in his handwriting, and says he’s glad they’re staying at the lake, both the Allisons agree that it doesn’t sound like him. Picking up the phone, they discover the line is dead. They sit watching the TV, and Mrs. Allison says to her husband ‘‘I wonder if we’re supposed to… do anything.’’ Mr. Allison replies, ‘‘No… I don’t think so. Just wait.’’ They clearly understand that they are required to act in a certain way: the cutting of the phone lines told them that. Death, in some form, is coming. As the story ends, the day has faded, and ‘‘the two old people huddled together in their summer cottage and waited.’’


The turn this story embodies, from urbane irony and satire to horror, is very characteristic of Jackson’s work. It’s also visible in The Haunting of Hill House, a book that’s something of a classic in its field. The premise is simple: Dr. John Montague, an academic interested in paranormal phenomena, assembles a group of people who he thinks have abilities in this field, in order that they can stay in a haunted house and see what happens. The house in question is Hill House, ‘‘not sane, [standing] by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more.’’ The three core members of his group are Eleanor Vance, Luke Sanderson, and Theodora (‘‘just Theodora’’). There’s also a pair of astonishingly unfriendly caretakers, Mr. and Mrs. Dudley.

Although the novel is told in the third person, for much of the time it sticks very close to Eleanor’s point of view. So, for instance, we’re shown early on her apparent telekinetic powers. Her persona seems initially, slightly arch, slightly too affected for a haunted house story – though we’re also told that ‘‘During the whole underside of her life, ever since her first memory, Eleanor had been waiting for something like Hill House.’’ Without a project like this in her life, Eleanor would have been aimless and directionless. But then we get an exchange of dialogue like this, in which the real shape of the story shows itself. Mrs. Dudley the caretaker is explaining to Eleanor in laborious detail the basis on which she works at the house in daylight only:

‘‘So there won’t be anyone around if you need help.’’
‘‘I understand.’’
‘‘We couldn’t hear you, even in the night.’’
‘‘I don’t suppose–’’
‘‘No one could. No one lives any nearer than the town. No one else will come any nearer than that.’’
‘‘I know,’’ Eleanor said tiredly.
‘‘In the night,’’ Mrs. Dudley said, and smiled outright. ‘‘In the dark,’’ she said, and closed the door behind her.
Eleanor almost giggled, thinking of herself calling, ‘‘Oh, Mrs. Dudley, I need your help in the dark,’’ and then she shivered.

I think that last paragraph embodies a tension visible elsewhere in Jackson’s work. On their surface, and even quite a way down, they may seem to have humorous or satirical intent. The initial premise of a Jackson story can often be laughed off – the idea, for instance, that there’s something axiomatically wrong in city-dwellers remaining in their country cottages after Labor Day. But the shape of the story is often one that maintains: this is no joke. Eleanor’s stay in Hill House, for all that it initially seems to be a jape, ends up deadly serious.


If I had to isolate one structuring device running through Jackson’s work, it would be a kind of intensity with which she constructs small groups with very distinct values. These groups can be as small as one person, but are typically made up of two, three, or four people, with complex family dynamics between them. (And if they’re not related, the dynamics have that intensity nonetheless.) Very often, too, the group will have a physical location that comes to symbolise what they stand for or what ties them together. In The Haunting of Hill House, the framing idea is the seemingly arbitrary one of Montague’s experiment. But even through the perspective of a comic relief character like Mrs. Dudley, it’s very clear how odd a group he has assembled. The book maintains for most of its length a fruitful level of ambiguity about what’s really going on. Are these characters having some kind of collective mental breakdown and hallucination? Or is there something genuinely haunted about the house? Although the text in the end makes more explicit than many Jackson works the answer, this is still a book that allows a wide range of readings. Like its obvious predecessor, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898), there is a shocking death at the end, but one that’s open to different interpretations. At the very least, though, the situation that plays out in The Haunting of Hill House results from the particular combination of characters placed there.

The same ideas also play out in We Have Always Lived in the Castle, in which a very unusual family group is presented. The novel is the story of how and whether the family can maintain its boundaries against a curious and hostile outside world. It’s narrated by ‘‘Merricat’’ Blackwood, who lives in an isolated house away from the nearest town together with her sister Constance and her uncle Julian. As the book proceeds, we get a sense of how this situation arose – indeed, as in many detective stories, the work the reader has to do is really work of reconstruction. Some years ago, Merricat and Constance’s parents died, poisoned with arsenic. Julian survived but was left permanently unwell. Constance was tried and acquitted of the murder, but has since been regarded with suspicion by those in the village. So Merricat is the one who runs errands for the family, buys groceries, and so on. She also believes that magic may act to protect the home they inhabit, and the book is studded with the rituals and rhymes she employs as protection against the outside world.

The outside world does arrive, though, in the form of a cousin, Charles, whose arrival precipitates the main action of the book. Merricat is suspicious that he will jeopardise their way of life, and indeed he does. A solution to the ‘‘mystery’’ is offered, and it cracks open the locked plates of this family. Unlike in the earlier book, the edifice that houses the tale will not be the same again. There is one other common thread, though, between the two. The Haunting of Hill House ends with an image of utter solitude: it surveys the rooms of the house and says that ‘‘whatever walked there, walked alone.’’ Merricat’s narrative seems to end in the opposite way: she is together with Constance and pledges to protect her. But the affect is to me very similar. Much about Merricat’s world has collapsed and can never be shared with anyone. Although the ending is couched in hopeful terms, it reads to me as unutterably bleak.

In all of these works, as I said at the start, Jackson hovers on the edge of the fantastic. This is best exemplified for me in ‘‘The Intoxicated’’ (1949), a brief vignette that’s placed first in The Lottery. At a party, a man who has had a little too much to drink wanders into the kitchen, ‘‘apparently to get ice, but actually to sober up a little.’’ He meets there a girl called Eileen, the daughter of his hosts, and they begin to talk a little while he drinks coffee. She tells him she’s writing a homework paper on the future of the world. But instead of the sort of pronouncements that one might expect – science-fictional pronouncements, say, about the power of the atom, she says this:

‘‘I keep figuring how it will be.’’ She spoke very softly, very clearly, to a point just past him on the wall. ‘‘Somehow I think of the churches as going first, before even the Empire State building. And then all the big apartment houses by the river, slipping down slowly into the water with the people inside. And the schools in the middle of Latin class maybe, while we’re reading Caesar.’’ She brought her eyes to his face, looking at him in numb excitement. ‘‘Each time we begin a chapter in Caesar, I wonder if this won’t be the one we never finish. Maybe we in our Latin class will be the last people who ever read Caesar.’’

The change to this apocalyptic register is so sudden and shocking that, were the man not drunk, one can imagine a reaction of outrage or horror. Instead, he plays along in an amused and detached way as Eileen goes on to imagine the subways collapsing, civilisation being remade and so on. Eventually he leaves, and rejoins his hosts in the party. He acknowledges that Eileen is ‘‘a really extraordinary girl,’’ but nothing more is said about the visionary door she opened. The title, it’s clear, could refer to her as much as to him: intoxicated ‘‘in numb excitement’’ by what she has imagined or seen. The story takes no view on the truth or otherwise of her imaginings; they’re just there.

All of which brings me to ‘‘The Lottery’’ (1948), surely by now one of the most taught and discussed stories in the language. In one small town, an annual lottery is held. We’re shown this process, first of choosing one family from the population and then one member of that family. The result of the lottery, though, is withheld till the last moment. The winner, Tessie Hutchinson, is stoned to death by her fellow villagers. Again, though, we have the division of the world into those inside the group and those outside. Here, the ‘‘inside’’ group is the whole of the town, and ‘‘outside’’ is hardly perceived at all – at least until Tessie protests at her execution. The story has by now spawned many thousands of pages of exegesis, in addition to provoking a huge controversy on initial publication. (The Library of America volume helpfully reproduces Jackson’s ‘‘Biography of a Story’’, her dry and measured summary of the response.) I’m sure, though, that what caused the shock was the manner of Jackson’s telling the story: the sunny amiability, the sense of long-held routines being amiably worked-through up until the last minute. I ended up reading the story as an accusation, a suggestion that routines and rituals can allow us to dodge the implications of our actions. The parallels of the Salem witch-trials were also pretty clear to me.

I’ve not been able to touch on many aspects of Jackson’s achievement. It’s hard to understate, for instance, the sheer polish and professionalism of her stories, the extent to which she sustains belief and readability. Her work is also important in a feminist context: a story like ‘‘The Beautiful Stranger’’, which takes apart a suburban life into its component pieces, is as comprehensive and damning an account of how women’s’ lives are sometimes constructed for them as Gilman’s ‘‘The Yellow Wallpaper’’. But I keep returning to the strangeness and intensity of the groups she created in fiction – and the sense that groups of certain kinds could allow anything to happen, even beyond the bounds of conventional realism. Even more than the cliché usually allows, she’s a writer who creates a world, and invites you to inhabit it.


This column was first published in the June 2011 issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

One thought on “Graham Sleight’s Yesterday’s Tomorrows: Shirley Jackson

  • June 27, 2011 at 2:09 pm

    Graham: I think part of the experience in reading Jackson today is a dip into the lost world before Horror/Dark Fantasy was a genre, She has been claimed by speculative fiction but her career took place very much in the mainstream.

    When I was a kid, Jackson was a writer people like my mother read because her stories appeared in the New Yorker. Her touches of darkness were a bit bleaker than, say, Thurber but not much. Her books “Life Among the Savages” and “Raising Demons” collections of humorous pieces about raising kids in the popular tradition of “Cheaper By The Dozen’ and “Please Don’t East the Daisies” may have been what she best known for writing. “The Haunting of Hill House” was a ghost story that fit within a certain literary tradition.

    If “The Lottery” was written today and published in the genre it would win awards and get anthologized but I doubt that the impact on the general reading public would be as fast or profound as it was.


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