Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life
By Ruth Franklin
Liveright, 624 pp.
There are few pieces of writing of any kind — novel, screenplay, history, or anything else — quite as bone-chilling as Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” That 1948 short story is a crisp work of Americana — a tale in which the “people of the village” gather cheerfully on a summer day, when “the flowers were blossoming profusely” — that subtly transmogrifies into a near-perfect story of casual barbarism.
Jackson is today mostly remembered for “The Lottery,” and for some of her other horror writing, notably The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Her once-very-popular memoir, Life Among the Savages, and much of her other writing, is today little remembered — as, sadly, is her life.
Journalist Ruth Franklin has stepped into remedy this — and brava. She has spent years delving into Jackson’s writing, diving into the archives, and conducting interviews, and she has produced a deeply intelligent and probing biography. Reading her account, and encountering the broad sweep of Jackson ‘s literary output, there is no avoiding the conclusion that Jackson was a supremely talented writer.
One other, regrettable, takeaway: Jackson’s life was often as dark as her fiction. Her mother was often belittling and cruel, and her husband — the prominent literary critic and Bennington College professor Stanley Edgar Hyman — was frequently unfaithful and bullying. Jackson stood her ground, but she also fell into addiction problems, and died all too young.
Franklin clearly has an agenda, beyond simply analyzing her subject’s life and work: she is, implicitly, arguing that Jackson should be held in higher regard. Franklin makes a compelling case, or rather two: that Jackson is an underappreciated feminist hero, and that she deserves a substantial place in the literary canon.