It’s Haunted December here at Vampire Squid, so join us as we continue to our look at influential writers of ghostly horror!
The haunted house genre has changed a lot over the 20th Century and one of the key figures responsible for this is author Shirley Jackson. Known for her tales of ghosts, possessions and the human capacity for cruelty, Jackson reinvented the American Gothic and is largely responsible for creating the haunted house story as we know it today.
Jackson was born in 1916 in San Francisco, California to an affluent middle-class family. An awkward child, she discovered her talent for writing at an early age and wrote prolifically even in high school. She attended Syracuse University in New York, where her writing really took off through college publications.
It was there that she met Stanley Edgar Hyman, who would become her husband. After they married, they moved to Vermont to the small village of North Bennington, where they settled and had four children. As well as raising a family, Jackson dedicated herself to her writing career, penning both horror stories and humorous tales of domestic life. She wrote numerous short stories published through magazines as well as full novels.
She became very successful in her lifetime, which proved to put a strain on her marriage. Not only did Hyman expect her to keep a spotless house and raise their children mainly by herself (even more so than your standard 1950s husband would), but he became incredibly jealous of her success. Despite Jackson being the breadwinner, he refused to allow her full access to her earnings, doling out a portion of her money as a form of allowance and keeping the rest for himself.
In 1965 Jackson died relatively young at 48. By this point she was dangerously overweight and taking a combination of amphetamines and barbiturates to cope with anxiety. This eventually proved to be too much for her system and she died in her sleep of heart failure. She left behind two unfinished novels, which were published posthumously in their incomplete state.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Jackson’s special brand of Gothic has a decidedly modern, New England feel to it. A master of gradual creeping tension, Jackson’s stories tap into the mind’s capacity for pure terror. Many of her stories bare the hallmarks of the mystery genre in addition to horror, sewing seeds of doubt and suspicion throughout their plot lines, making us piece together snippets of information given to try to figure out what exactly is going on.
Though now considered classic horror reading, during the 50s, Jackson’s stories shocked and appalled audiences. The most extreme version of this was the reception of The Lottery, with many readers believing that it detailed true events. It was even banned at the time by the Union of South Africa – something Jackson took pleasure in, claiming that they at least understood its meaning.
Her work is often described as perfectly fitting the mindset 1950s America. Its pervasive sense of uneasiness was a perfect fit for a Cold War America, where paranoia reigned throughout much of the 50s and 60s. The idea of a terror you couldn’t see, something that stirred within your own home, plagued the minds of many post-WWII Americans. The corruptive power of Jackson’s demonic forces communicated the fear of political corruption that gripped the West.
In later years, many have recognised the feminist leanings in her work, which, for a while, even earned her the nickname “Virginia Werewoolf”. Her writing conveys a sense of entrapment and suffocation felt by many women confined to domestic roles in the 50s. The magnetic pull Jackson’s imposing houses have on her female characters reflects a time where being literally trapped in the house wasn’t a supernatural threat but simply a fact of life for most women.
The Haunting of Hill House (1963)
There are several recurring features of Jackson’s stories:
1. Small town New England domesticity, which combines with the horror themes to disturbing effect.
2. Supernatural beings like ghosts, demons and witches. Although human evil is common in her work, so many stories feature these fantastical beings which always pose as a threat.
3. Women often come in contrasting pairs in her stories, with one being downtrodden and mentally fragile, while the other is confident, adventurous and witty. While many critics view these pairs as pseudo-romantic couples, some think they represent the two sides of Jackson herself. The best example of this in in The Haunting of Hill House, where an intense friendship evolves between the unstable caregiver who escapes a life of servitude, and the charismatic actress with psychic powers.
4. Closed-minded and xenophobic villagers are also common throughout these stories. Reflective of the small-town mentality Jackson had become used to in North Bennington, these individuals act almost as one single character in their mob-like behaviour. Their persecuting mentality places them as the true villains of many stories, an everyday contrast to the psychological and supernatural horror. This is probably most obvious in The Lottery, in which the town’s process of ritualistic sacrifice demonstrates the danger of thoughtless, community-held traditions.
“One who raises demons must deal with them.”
Many horror writers’ personal demons manifest themselves as literal demons through their writing. Jackson led a troubled, anxious life and through the use of powerful occult imagery in her writing many of her repressed feelings are expressed. This is partly what makes her stories so compelling – they hit on the raw, relatable anxieties that everyone is susceptible to.
Even from childhood, Jackson felt herself something of an outsider. She was often chided by her mother for not fitting into a stereotypically feminine mould, due to her appearance as well as her dark fascinations. This inability to fit in followed her throughout her school years, where her ghoulish interests set her apart from her classmates. At this time, her writing became a solitary source of comfort, featuring loner figures tormented by impossible anxieties. This exclusion continued into her adult life, where she felt herself rejected by her local community, and the theme of outcasts remained prevalent in her work.
To cope with her anxieties, she turned to medication. The risks of barbiturates were unknown at the time and it was a commonly prescribed treatment for anxiety. In addition to these, she turned to amphetamines, a highly anxiety-causing drug, in order to control her weight. This in turn led to a vicious cycle of heightening doses and increased dependence. She also developed a heavy drinking problem. This dependence on substances affected her ability to write and is possibly responsible for her increasingly codependent characters. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is often hailed as her masterpiece and features no supernatural elements, but instead portrays an unsettlingly close bond between sisters who have an almost symbiotic relationship.
Jackson ended up developing agoraphobia later in life. There’s a grim irony that the writer most famous for creating malevolent houses which trap their victims eventually became a victim of her own home. For her, the home was something she both retreated into and resented. It became a paradoxical source of safety and entrapment, in much the same way Hill House is to its protagonist Eleanor. Jackson was able to overcome her agoraphobia towards the end of her life and the fiction she was working on before her death reflected a renewed determination to be free of her anxieties.
The Haunting of Hill House (1963)
While Shirley Jackson’s works have stayed more in the literary background, their influence has reached deep enough to become ingrained in our culture. Her stories went on to inspire many other authors like Stephen King, Sarah Waters, Neil Gaiman and Richard Matheson.
The Haunting (1999)
Her most well-known works remain instantly recognisable still. Though at first The Lottery disgusted audiences, it has since been absorbed into the collective consciousness of America. It was adapted for radio, television and film several times and has inspired numerous homages and parodies.
Perhaps most famously, Hill House was adapted into the feature film The Haunting in 1963. Considered a great movie in its own right, it’s still regarded well enough that a remake was attempted in 1999 with a more famous cast including Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta-Jones – though this was unfortunately scary for all the wrong reasons. The image of the house itself as a character, a dark malicious entity being explored by a band of social misfits, has permanently changed the template of the haunted house story. Jackson’s recognition is only increasing with time, not only due to her work receiving more critical attention but to the pivotal role she played in the evolution of ghost stories.