A Look at One of the Best Authors of All Time, Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson entered the world on December 14th in 1916. She was born to Leslie and Geraldine Jackson in San Francisco, California. From the time Shirley was very young until her death, she did not have a great relationship with her mother. Geraldine and her husband married young and Geraldine became immediately pregnant. This disappointed the new wife as she had been looking forward to spending time with her husband. This is one of the first things that caused her mother to put a strain on their relationship. Unfortunately, being outside of the home was no easier for Shirley because she didn’t seem to fit in with the other children where she went to school. So, with her and her mother’s unpleasant relationship and not having many friends, she began to spend most of her time writing. In an unpublished essay she wrote:

“When I first used to write stories and hide them away in my desk, I used to think that no one had ever been so lonely as I was and I used to write about people all alone. . . . I thought I was insane and I would write about how the only sane people are the ones who are condemned as mad and how the whole world is cruel and foolish and afraid of people who are different.”

Shirley’s adolescent years were no better for her either. Her mother had hopes of turning her into a debutante who was interested in clothes and pretty hairstyles. However, Shirley was overweight and had no interest in those things at all. The only interest that Shirley had though, was still the same one she had from when she was younger, which was writing. Learning that Shirley was never going to be the daughter she wanted, Geraldine only grew more disappointed in her and began to treat her worse.

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Shirley Jackson from her college days. Photo Source: www.biography.com

After high school, Shirley attended the University of Rochester but it wasn’t a place where she wanted to be and after a short time she was kicked out. This was just another huge disappointment for her mother since her mother had wanted her to attend The University of Rochester. The University was close to where her mother and father lived and that way her mother could keep an eye on her. So, to rebel against her mother, Shirley began attending Syracuse University which was a university her mother had always disapproved of.

It would turn out that Syracuse University would also be the place where Shirley would meet her future husband.

Stanley Edgard Hyman was attending Syracuse University in 1938 when he read a story named ” Janice”.  As soon as he was done, he declared that he was going to marry the women who wrote it. The story was in the Syracuse University literary magazine and the author was Shirley Jackson. It was her first story to ever be published. Two years later Stanley and Shirley met at a University party. A short time later just as he declared, he did indeed marry her. The two would go on to have 4 children together.

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Some of Shirley Jackson’s work. Photo Source: www.theblackappletypepad.com (Emily W. Martin)

Like some marriages turn out, theirs was far from perfect as well. Stanley, who was a jazz and literary critic would have numerous affairs throughout their marriage. Shirley would often put up a front as though the affairs never bothered her but inside she was heartbroken. Stanley would even show her his diaries where he would write about the affairs. In the end though, despite Hyman being far from husband of the year material, something that he was smart enough to see was Shirley’s writing talent. From before they met until her death, he was always one of her biggest fans. He often complained that Jackson “received no awards or prizes, grants or fellowships” and was routinely not recognized for her talent.

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Shirley Jackson and one of her four children. Photo Source: latimes.com(Ruth Franklin)

Later in her life, Shirley would become a very reclusive woman, and she would remain in North Bennington for the last years of her life. She would spend most of her days indoors and would not want to discuss her work with the public.

By the 1960s, her health began to deteriorate quickly due to her increasing weight, heavy drinking, and her cigarette smoking. Those close to her said it was easy to see why her mental health was fading so badly in her 40’s. Shirley was having panic attacks and suffered from Agoraphobia. Her doctors, however, didn’t seem to see the danger in prescribing her many different drugs at the same time or her mixing them all together. She was being prescribed pills like Dexamyl, Miltown, Valium, Seconal, and Thorazine. Some of those pills, when taken together, would make some of her symptoms worse instead of helping them.

On August 8th, 1965 Shirley went for her customary nap after lunch. When she didn’t rise around her usual time, her daughter Sally went to go wake her but she got no response from Shirley. Her husband then tried and could not rouse her either. So next they called the doctor who arrived and said she had had a heart attack and died in her sleep. This is brought on when one suffers from arterial sclerotic heart disease, which is what she is believed to have had. It was said that her drinking, smoking and pill use only made the disease get worse.

Shirley Jackson was only 48 years old.

Shirley was truly a unique soul with an incredible talent and she will always be remembered as one of the best horror/mystery writers of all time. Many authors such as Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Sarah Waters, Nigel Kneale, Joanne Harris, and Richard Matheson have all named Shirley Jackson as having an influence on them.

Shirley Jackson with her children, North Bennington, Vermont, 1956
Shirley and her four children Laurence, Joanne, Sarah, and Barry. Photo Source: The New York Review of Books (Joyce Carol Oates)

10 Interesting Facts about Shirley Jackson

  1. The story that Shirley is most known for is The Lottery. It was first published in The New Yorker and between the magazine and Shirley, they received over 300 hundred letters about the story. Many people wrote just to say how they found the story to be “outrageous”, “Gruesome” and “Shocking”. Some readers even canceled their subscription to the magazine because of it. Shirley said that out of all those letters, only 13 were kind. She also noted that some weren’t even concerned with what the story meant but they wanted to know where the lotteries were held and if they could go watch them!
  2. She became interested in witchcraft in College after reading Sir George Frazer’s book The Golden Bough and continued studying it her whole life. She often referenced historical witchcraft chronicles and manuals in her writing. In the jacket cover of her first novel, it says ‘perhaps the only contemporary writer who is a practicing amateur witch’
  3. Shirley didn’t believe in ghosts! She said that she was intrigued by the occult but never had a supernatural experience herself. She got her ideas for her ghost story The Haunting of Hill House from historical accounts of haunted houses that she had read about.
  4. There are movies and TV shows based on her stories. They are 3 short films based on The Lottery and one made for TV movie. Singer Marilyn Manson’s music video for The Man That You Fear is also said to be loosely based on the story. There is a 1963 movie The Haunting and a 1999 movie of the same name that were both based on the story The Haunting of Hill House. Netflix currently has a TV show called The Haunting of Hill House. There is also a movie in post-production called We Have Always Lived in the Castle based on Shirley’s 1962 novel of the same name.
  5. Shirley kept several diaries. She would simultaneously write in all of them using different voices and personas. She wanted to see what fit and what didn’t and she found this method helped her in her writing.
  6. She had many famous friends like Ralph Ellison, Dylan Thomas, and J.D Salinger. All said that Jackson was fun to be around and had great wit. Though no one really knows what happened besides Dylan Thomas and Shirley Jackson, it has been said that the two shared a ” drunken encounter” one night at her house while her husband was in the other room watching the football game.
  7. The Lottery is only 3,773 words and Shirley came up with the idea when she was on her way home from the grocery store. She said she put her daughter in her playpen, began writing and completed the story before her son got home from Kindergarten for his lunch.
  8. Shirley assigned her moods names. Her happiest mood was named “Irish” and some of her other moods were names “Harlequin”, “Villon” and “Pan”.
  9. In her archives today, you will find a leather-bound scrapbook that contains over 150 of her “Lottery” letters from readers.
  10. In 2007, The Shirley Jackson award was established. It is awarded annually at Readercon for outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror and dark fantasy.

If you are interested in learning more about Shirley Jackson’s life, please check out “A Rather Haunted Life”  by Ruth Franklin and released on Sept 27th, 2016.

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Shirley and her great wit. Photo Source: Mental Floss & Ben Priede(Pinterest)

 

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Quote from Shirley. Photo Source: Nash Black(Pinterest)

 

Thanks so much for reading. If you have any questions or comments please leave them in the comment section below. Remember to check out some more great articles here on The Game of Nerds. Until next time……….

 

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Author: Kerry Johnson

Loves Care Bears, Writing, Supernatural and reading true crime.

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