Witch Week is about celebrating all kinds of fantasy literature, which can evoke many different moods and experiences — but because it takes place in the darkening days following Halloween, our reading choices may tend toward the creepier end of the spectrum. And for intelligently creepy entertainment, there is no one quite like Shirley Jackson, an author who has been receiving more and more well-deserved attention and acclaim these days.
Just in case you might need some encouragement to read Shirley Jackson for the first time, or reasons to give to others, I asked Jenny of Reading the End to help us out. I knew she would do a brilliant job — she got me to read The Sundial, after all. So prepare to be enabled, and perhaps a little bit frightened …
For the Witch Week schedule and linkup, see the Master Post.
Top Ten Reasons to Read Shirley Jackson
by Jenny of Reading the End
Seriously, Shirley Jackson’s books are so scary. You’re insufficiently appreciating the scariness of her books. Like all good horror writers, she makes you fear for the characters. But her particular gift is making you fear what the characters will do—not what will be done to them. You can argue forever about whether Jackson is pessimistic or realistic about the state of humanity, but whatever the case may be, nobody writes better than Jackson about the evil that lurks in the hearts of men (and women).
Let’s face it, your English teacher should have made you read “The Lottery” in eighth grade. Or some grade. (I chose eighth because that’s when I read it, and I assume that my English teacher knew what she was doing, considering she made us all go nuts for Macbeth while at the same time being snotty fourteen-year-olds.) If that didn’t happen, you’re missing out not just on the references people are making to it, but also on one of the greatest short stories mankind has ever known. Get your head right. Read “The Lottery.”(I just reread “The Lottery” right now, to prove my point, and it is still so damn scary.)
Shirley Jackson influenced oodles of writers working today, including Stephen King, Kelly Link, Neil Gaiman, and Helen Oyeyemi. It’s not that you need Shirley Jackson to understand what those authors are talking about. They’ll stand on their own with no problem. It’s just that their books are houses built on a Shirley Jackson foundation. In fact, possibly no haunted house book written since the 1960s has been able to shake the influence of the mighty and wondrous Shirley Jackson.
Speaking of Houses
Have you heard the expression “safe as houses”? Because Shirley Jackson makes it meaningless—or maybe just alters its meaning forever. Famously agoraphobic, the houses of Shirley Jackson’s fiction are their characters’ only refuge from the forces of darkness; and at the same time, they are traps and prisons. The outside world promises death, yet only by death can the characters be free of the cages that their houses represent. It’s the best. (Slash, the worst.)
Look, you have already heard plenty about The Haunting of Hill House. (It’s awesome.) We Have Always Lived in the Castle will be a major motion picture™ featuring Sebastian Stan in the handsome opportunist role. But have you read The Sundial? Almost certainly not. Let me help you with that.
The Sundial is about a group of people who live in a big manor house. One of the family members is recently deceased, and there is talk that he was murdered by someone else in the house. Then Aunt Fanny has a vision that the world is going to end, and the only survivors will be the people inside the manor house. They spend the rest of the book hating each other and preparing for the end of the world, and it’s majestic.
See, here’s the problem with Shirley Jackson being so good at creeping you out. Everyone associates her name (rightly) with horror, but then they forget (wrongly) to praise the pitch-black humor that permeates all of her writing. Even at her very most gothic, Jackson still has an eye to the absurdity of human behavior, and she’s perpetually poking fun at our attempts to find reason and normalcy in the utter chaos of this world.
I KNOW I KNOW this seems redundant, but bear with me. The first humor was that she’s funny even when she’s being scary, and this one’s that she’s funny when she’s mainly just being funny. Though she’s best known for “The Lottery,” and we hope will soon be best known for We Have Always Lived in the Castle once the movie comes out and everyone loves it and the book becomes the spooky bestseller it always deserved to be, Shirley Jackson’s fame in her own time was down to the many essays she wrote for women’s magazines about her life as a wife and mother. Collected in Life among the Savages and Raising Demons, these stories cast a sardonic eye on the work of raising tots in the years of the baby boom.
We all like to feel that we’re keeping up with the new releases, don’t we? And this Witch Week, you’re in luck: A brand new, authoritative, New York Times–approved biography of Shirley Jackson has just come onto the market. Ruth Franklin is by all accounts a careful and insightful biographer, providing new insights into Shirley Jackson’s childhood, marriage, and work as a writer of humorous essays, creepy short stories, and literary criticism.
The Shirley Jackson Awards
Once you know that you love Shirley Jackson (and you will love her—that’s not a threat, just a prediction), the world stands ready to tell you what to read next. If there’s one thing for which you can depend on Shirley Jackson fans, it’s book recommendations. For the annual Shirley Jackson Awards, a panel of writers, editors, and academics choose five finalists in six categories of excellence in the realm of literary psychological suspense and horror. As yet there hasn’t been a single year of Shirley Jackson Awards that’s failed to give me terrific recommendations.
Look, the fact is, book bloggers love Shirley Jackson. This has been true as long as I’ve been a book blogger, and I don’t see any prospect of its changing. Read We Have Always Lived in the Castle or The Haunting of Hill House and book bloggers will flock to your doorstep to rave about our girl Shirley Jackson. Please @ me whenever you get a chance to let me know how you feel about Merricat, and be prepared for me to order you sternly to read The Sundial.