Haunted houses—the kind portrayed in countless books and movies—are designed to make their guests feel small and powerless, but also a tiny bit titillated in spite of themselves. Suspense builds slowly. Each creepy revelation incites curiosity first, then dread, then horror. The point is to seduce these mortals into exploring their own darkest corners, only to reduce them to a quivering pile of nerves. The best haunted houses don’t murder their guests. Instead, they slowly and sublimely drive them mad.
For headstrong women who know their own desires, growing up in conventional society sometimes feels like inhabiting a haunted house. At first, there is so much promise, mysterious and tantalizing. As you pull open that heavy wooden door with the gargoyle knocker, you feel flattered by its intimidating proportions—you are necessary and important, maybe for the first time ever. But soon you catch fleeting glimpses of dark spirits who whisper in douche-bro baritones that you don’t belong and never will. You develop a recurring suspicion that you’re merely a pawn in some elaborate game, that even if you’re brave you can never be a real player. The floor shifts under your feet, the walls shake, you awake at midnight to heavy breathing. she was asking for it is scrawled across the wall in blood. You tell your story the next morning, but no one believes you. Did you imagine the whole thing? Is some unearthly force trying to make you feel weak and lost? Or are you just losing your mind?
This kind of suspenseful badgering, with its malevolent and condescending patriarchal undertones, pervades Shirley Jackson’s work. In the novels and many of the stories she wrote in the middle of the 20th century, the polite banter of seemingly innocent common folk develops into outright mockery, subterfuge, or even violence. When confronted by an unexpectedly hostile world, Jackson’s female protagonists experience a climactic rush of bafflement and betrayal that inevitably spills over into a more private realm of second-guessing, self-doubt, and paranoia. Jackson relished untangling the process by which women lose themselves. She could stretch the ordeal out over the course of an entire novel, as she did in The Haunting of Hill House (1959), with the slow unraveling of lonely 32-year-old Eleanor Vance. Or she could foreshadow the whole harrowing experience in 40-odd pages, as she did with the start of her novel Hangsaman (1951), which reads like a modern parable of disempowerment.
In Jackson’s vision, even smart bystanders can be at once suspicious of and vulnerable to the delusions, false gods, and blunt weapons of the rabble. Reading her work today sometimes feels like discovering a detailed prophecy not just of rape culture but of the vitriolic thugs who seem to rule the internet and have somehow invaded politics lately. Seven decades before Donald Trump’s outraged mobs, Jackson unveiled the brutality and contempt that lurk beneath the surface of neighborly human interactions. From “The Lottery,” her seminal portrait of a murderous horde of ordinary folks published in The New Yorker in 1948, to her final chilling novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), in which a hostile gaggle of villagers harasses two sisters isolated in their dead parents’ lonely house, Jackson felt compelled to sound the alarm on humanity: People are competitive and self-serving, and no one can be trusted.
According to Ruth Franklin’s new biography, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, the author came to such stories honestly. Her mother hectored her mercilessly about her weight and bad habits from the time she was a child until the last days of her life. (Jackson died of an apparent heart attack in 1965, only 48.) The importance of keeping up appearances in polite society was central to Jackson’s affluent upbringing in Burlingame, California, and Rochester, New York. Her mother’s family was firmly grounded among San Francisco’s wealthy elite, and her father was an executive in the printing business. But appearances were something Jackson rejected from an early age with her unruly auburn hair, unconventional style of dress, caustic wit, and swagger. And even though Jackson was confident and outspoken, she could find intimacy dangerous, a dark realm of judgment and scrutiny and deeply personal insults that—not surprising, given her mother’s fixation on social standing—seemed to carry the verdict of the wider culture.
By the time Jackson, then 21, met her husband, the New Yorker writer and literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, she was primed to accept condescension, belittling, and neglect as her natural habitat, according to Franklin. Early letters show that Hyman loved Jackson dearly and admired her work enormously—perhaps not easy, considering that his own writing career, though impressive, stalled just as Jackson’s was taking off. For her part, Jackson was sure at the start of their relationship that she could control Hyman, and he didn’t dispute that claim. “I am proud, and completely powerful,” Jackson wrote of one of their first nights together.
But Hyman soon proved an emotionally inconstant mate, alternating between adoration and dismissiveness. He regularly cheated on Jackson, then relayed the details of his dalliances in letters to her. There was the “Polish slut of twenty-six” who was “damned good-looking in a consumptive way”; the three bohemian girls he met at a party (“I fondled them all indiscriminately [and] called all three of them ‘baby’ ”); and the cute redhead in the apartment upstairs he romanced while Jackson was on vacation with her family.
Like any critic worth his salt, Hyman justified his behavior with ideology. In his view, all enlightened bohemians recognized that monogamy was a faulty construct designed for high-capitalist sheep. Jackson wrote him angry letters about his affairs, but rarely sent them. “You mustn’t be so timid with Stanley,” a mutual friend told her. “You let him categorize you and your emotions and your reactions just like he does his own.” Instead, Jackson endured Hyman’s treatment of her, as Franklin writes, choosing to “swallow her rage at his infidelity.”
No slouch herself at compartmentalizing, Jackson managed to raise four children, mostly in a somewhat insular town in Vermont where Hyman taught literature at Bennington College. (Jackson once wrote of the faculty wife, “She is always just the teensiest bit in the way.”) By all reports, Jackson charted her own course through the domestic expectations placed on her. A great cook, she balked at cleaning or playing the traditional, self-sacrificing mother but spent lots of time singing and reading books to her children. And while Jackson relished the magic of two smart women bonding (a staple of her work), she didn’t seem to have that many close, lasting female friendships in real life—though not for lack of effort on her part. Even the pairs in Jackson’s novels are inevitably threatened by jealousy, betrayal, and the larger forces (manipulative paramours, bloodthirsty mobs, supernatural beings) working against them. As Franklin keenly observes, “One of the ironies of Jackson’s fiction is the essential role that women play in enforcing the standards of the community—standards that hurt them most.”
In a biography densely packed with anecdotes, letters, highly detailed descriptions, and lengthy, thoughtful analyses of most of Jackson’s work, Franklin paints a picture of Jackson as creatively fulfilled but isolated and unhappy. She relied on Hyman for critical feedback, but resented her dependence on him. She struggled with anxiety, struggled with her weight, struggled with nightmares and sleepwalking. Like many women of her generation, she was prescribed tranquilizers for her problems. Even as her work life began to thrive, and she eventually became the primary breadwinner—thanks in large part to her best-selling essay collection on domestic life, Life Among the Savages—Jackson felt alienated and emotionally starved. She had difficulty trusting people. With a husband pursuing an ongoing affair with her close friend, who could blame her?
No wonder so many of Jackson’s works conjure a slow, simmering resentment that becomes almost hallucinatory, as if years of muting emotional reactions naturally warp perception, fueling a state of delirium. Franklin highlights this dynamic throughout her biography, tracing the lineage of belittlement from Jackson’s mother to her husband, and underscoring the ways that Jackson was “shamed … for legitimate and rational desires.” Indeed, Jackson often wrote in journals and letters that she felt tricked by Hyman: “You once wrote me a letter … telling me that I would never be lonely again. I think that was the first, the most dreadful, lie you ever told me.” It is eerily fitting that when one of her purest dramatizations of this feeling of being misunderstood and manipulated, The Bird’s Nest (1954), was adapted as a film (Lizzie), the heroine wasn’t depicted as “hysterical,” the victim of emotional strains, both familial and social. She was portrayed as a flat-out lunatic.
But for Jackson, the heroine’s destruction always begins with false promises—from parents, from lovers, from society at large. The process is embodied perhaps most brilliantly at the start of Hangsaman. At her parents’ garden party, the 17-year-old ingenue Natalie Waite meets a strikingly confident woman named Verna, who tells her,
Little Natalie, never rest until you have uncovered your essential self. Remember that. Somewhere, deep inside you, hidden by all sorts of fears and worries and petty little thoughts, is a clean pure being made of radiant colors.
Later, though, Natalie’s mother drunkenly rages over her husband’s betrayals in a bedroom upstairs. “First they tell you lies,” she says to Natalie,
and they make you believe them. Then they give you a little of what they promised, just a little, enough to keep you thinking you’ve got your hands on it. Then you find out that you’re tricked, just like everyone else, just like everyone, and instead of being different and powerful and giving the orders, you’ve been tricked just like everyone else and then you begin to know what happens to everyone and how they all get tricked.
A now-tipsy Natalie escapes downstairs, but a strange older man presses her to tell him what she’s thinking. “About how wonderful I am,” she replies. The man seems angered by this, and leads her into the woods. Natalie’s innocent shock at his intentions is truly heart-stopping: “Oh my dear God sweet Christ, Natalie thought, so sickened she nearly said it aloud, is he going to touch me?”
Jackson understood horror. She knew that horror requires an emotional seduction that is revealed to be a malevolent ruse: The ingenue experiences herself as radiant and powerful right before all her power is stripped from her. Clever young girls imagine they were born to be cherished, when instead they’re created merely to be destroyed. In many of her stories, Jackson outlines how girls are groomed for this fate by overly critical mothers (or, in the case of Hangsaman, by a manipulatively intimate father). Worst of all, the recognition that the macabre universe you enter in maturity isn’t fantasy—it’s reality—sets you apart in the world, raving or drunk in some upstairs bedroom. Your choice is either to play along, or to lose your grip completely.
Whether that sounds hopelessly dark, to the point of paranoia, or terrifyingly prescient depends entirely on your particular perch. For me, Jackson’s uncanny portraits of the fragmentation and collapse of the female psyche echo throughout contemporary culture, from the casual derision we lavish on all things female or feminine to the so-called fairy-tale celebrity marriages that are later revealed to be nightmares of verbal and physical abuse. The chilling 7,000-word letter a sexual-assault victim wrote to her Stanford attacker reads like a Jackson novel in miniature, in which darkness subsumes former innocence. By its end, we hear echoes of the last, haunting line of “The Lottery”: “And then they were upon her.” Has the world gone mad, or have we?
These feelings of dread and panic, paired with the desperate hope that the deluded crowd will snap out of it and come to its senses, lie at the heart of what makes Shirley Jackson’s work unforgettable. Tapping into her own frustrations and agonies, she painted one exquisite portrait after another of that precise juncture where blustery confidence yields to helplessness and terror. The sinister forces the heroine perceives are real, but they’re just ephemeral enough, by design, to make her doubt herself repeatedly. In the end, the self-possessed woman becomes the possessed.
The challenges we face during these dark times are not unlike those Jackson faced as she began to speak publicly and to embrace a wider community of writers in the years before her early death: We must trust our senses, trust our instincts, trust that inside each of us is a “clean pure being made of radiant colors.” Then we have to search the faces of the mob for signs of the same.