The Haunting of Shirley Jackson

Have you ever read any stories or novels by Shirley Jackson? If you know her writing, it’s most likely to be that you read her short story “The Lottery” in a classroom. It is a classic creepy story hidden inside somewhat normal circumstances.

The story begins:
“The people of the village began to gather in the square, between the post office and the bank, around ten o’clock; in some towns there were so many people that the lottery took two days and had to be started on June 26th, but in this village, where there were only about three hundred people, the whole lottery took less than two hours, so it could begin at ten o’clock in the morning and still be through in time to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner.”

If you haven’t read the story,  you should – so  I won’t add a spoiler, but it’s not what you’d expect. This is not a lottery where the winner is rewarded.

That story was originally published in The New Yorker in 1948 and it still has power. Readers were shocked, wrote angry letters, and canceled their subscriptions.

Jackson has other stories and books that readers should try.  Her novel The Haunting of Hill House is a good haunted house book. What I like about her is that she often takes ordinary people in realistic settings and tells a tale of horror and the occult.

In Hill House, there are four characters – an occult scholar, his assistant, a sad young woman with some poltergeist experience, and the future heir of Hill House. It turns out that the house has plans to make one of them its own.

I used to offer Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle as outside reading when I taught middle school. I don’t know who had the book approved for our reading list. It was a strange choice made before my time there. I had a class set of the novel. I never “taught” the novel. It was a book students could choose from a group of four novels. It was fairly easy to seduce some students into reading the novel by implying that we shouldn’t be reading it for school. Thankfully, I never had any issues with parents about it. That might not be true today.

In this novel, the strange – but not haunted – castle is called Blackwood House. The girl who narrates, Merricat, tells a tale that was described on book jackets as “macabre, sinister and humorous.”

Merricat is a character that I found middle school girls really liked. She has created an odd world with her own rules. My students assumed that her use of magic, her buried talismanic objects and ones she attached to trees, along with her rituals, and the talk about poisoned relatives was the truth. Ah, the unreliable narrator.

I think middle schoolers are ripe for a strange family in a strange house that is viewed with distrust and some hostility by neighbors and other villagers.  The neighbors don’t really ever see anything paranormal going on, but the family gets a reputation as a weird family. The reader starts to wonder what is the truth.

Merricat’s little world is invaded by cousin Charles, who seems to want to grab hold of the Blackwood “fortune.” He undoes her spells and digs up her treasures and she gets desperate.

My young teenage students seemed to really connect with being seen as strange or being an outsider. Maybe they didn’t cope or fight like Merricat, but they knew her battle. They found the novel’s conclusion as tragic.

Shirley is a strange writer. I mean that in a good way. But Shirley Jackson also wrote some light, humorous tales about family life. She wrote Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons. She was a mom with four children and not some dark, disturbed woman. She wrote at night after her mothering work was done.

Maybe it was those night hours that took her into that other directions. Maybe it was an escape from those daytime “demons” she was raising.  Maybe she had a rough time in 8th grade.