Horror fiction tends to be dominated by male authors. In fact when I was first told about Women in Horror Week, I nearly panicked because almost none of the names on the books on my shelves were written by women. When you think of female horror authors, the biggest name to come to mind is Anne Rice. The issue I have with Rice is that she is more supernatural/gothic/romance than horror, and truth be told, I can’t stand her writing style. Then there are authors like Laurell K. Hamilton or Charlaine Harris, who use the supernatural in their works, but do not have that “horrific” quality to them. The former is more of a supernatural noir genre, the latter is definitely more on the romance side. I have never read Hamilton, I do love Harris, but neither of them really fit with the celebration this week. Then we come to Stephanie Meyer. I don’t think I need to say much about her other than that her work is not horror in the slightest; it is not even literature.
So who the hell was I going to write about? And then as I was thinking back to the horror class I took my senior year of college, it came to me: Shirley Jackson. While she is a female author that I not only enjoy, but also respect; she is also celebrated for being one of the greatest American horror writers, and she also influenced some of my favorite horror authors of all time. So if you have never heard of her, I will do my best to educate you.
Shirley Jackson had her first story published in 1938, and eventually published six novels, and more than ninety short stories. Jackson was born in San Francisco, but moved to Rochester, New York. She graduated from Brighton High School, and then attended The University of Rochester, but was asked to leave. She then finished her degree at Syracuse University. She worked on the campus literary magazine, and met her husband. He became a professor in Vermont, and she wrote and cared for the children. They are reported as having had 100,000 books in a personal library. Sadly, she died of heart failure when she was only 48 years old as a result of over-medication and heavy smoking.
Jackson is best known for two specific works: The Lottery, and The Haunting of Hill House. The former was written in 1948 and is one of the most chilling short stories I have ever read. The story concerns a small town and their brutal annual tradition. If you have never read the story, then I beg you to do so. It had such a tremendous impact on society, to the point where Jackson received hate mail for months after it was published in The New Yorker, and scores of people cancelled their subscriptions. The story was even banned in the Union of South Africa, which amused Jackson. She felt that at least “they understood the story.” When asked about her intentions behind the story, Jackson replied: “I suppose, I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village to shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.”
The Haunting of Hill House is heralded as one of the most important horror novels of the 20thcentury, and is considered the greatest haunted house story of all time. It was even nominated for the National Book Award. Stephen King wrote of the novel in his non-fiction book, Danse Macabre, and gives it an in depth review. What is most important about the novel is that Jackson does not rely on horror, shock, or disgust in order to scare the readers, but rather she uses a deep psychological basis to both unsettle and terrify the reader. The novel has an open ending that leaves much to reader interpretation, and is quite disquieting. The story was adapted to film twice, once in 1963 and again in 1999 each time as The Haunting. However, the 1999 adaptation is a more fantastically supernatural take on the story, and loses much in translation from the original novel.
Jackson consistently declined to give interviews, discuss her personal life, or even to promote her own works. She believed that her writings would speak for her clearly enough, and I believe that they have. Jackson was an incredibly talented author whose works have had a tremendous impact on the genre of horror fiction, and back in 2008 an award was named after her. The Shirley Jackson award celebrates: “outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror and the dark fantastic.” Authors such as King, Gaiman, and Matheson have all acknowledged Jackson as influencing or inspiring them to write, so we have a great deal to thank her for.
In honor of Women in Horror Week, Shirley Jackson, we salute you!