Jackson’s worlds are small. They inhabit a very tiny space and involve people, mostly female protagonists, who live in small towns and go grocery shopping, a lot. They are mostly insecure too or paranoid, and these microscopic worlds that add to a claustrophobic atmosphere making Jackson a writer worthy of the praise she has garnered over the years. Whether her views stemmed from her own personal life following a nervous breakdown and severe acrophobia matters not, but there seems a continuity to her characters that can’t be overlooked. Having read the novels The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, I was surprised at how timid some of her characters are. They shrink away from the outside worlds to live isolated or within their own minds, sometimes both. And that continues to be a theme in some of these stories too, weaving in issues of mistrust, small mindedness and cruelty. Humanity is always stripped away to reveal the uglier side. The Lottery, which I had heard so much about, and had gained a reputation as being one of the terrifying stories committed to paper, may leave more harden Horror aficionados a little deflated. It’s foreshadowing is second to none, as is the tension built throughout. But the ending, while handled skilfully, may leave some wondering why it had built such a grand reputation. Of course, at the time of its release in the New Yorker, circa 1948, you may understand why they lost a lot of their subscribers and had letters of complaint, but in today’s world the story wouldn’t warrant such accolades. As I finish Chuck Palahniuk’s book on writing, he points out that The Lottery represents the horror of army selection. That there is a construct to which people (soldiers) are selected only to lose their life. As a reader, this true horror resonated, and so the ending of The Lottery echoes in the mind, especially in a post-war world.
The Haunting of Hill House will be the one most will associate with Jackson. Even if you’ve not read the book, the likelihood is you’ve watched the Netflix show or maybe even the original movie. I was suitably impressed with Jackson’s ability to build tension in that book and give so much depth to the main protag, Eleanor. While my expectation, based on the title, was that this would be a ghost story, I found that the ghosts were more the black cloth to something else, which for me was to exasperate themes of grief and trauma. A love it when a book does that. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, dealt with similar issues, but done with much more subtlety. The innocence of Mary Cat lured me into a false sense of security, and while I considered this book much scarier than Hill House due to the weight of the backstory (I won’t go on too much about that in case it spoils the journey), it had more depth. Beautiful, weird, and as always, goose-skinning.
Whichever book you choose, or short story, know that in the hands of Shirley Jackson you’ll find a small world where within lives big themes, and plenty of ghosts. A true pioneer in the field of horror and a must for anyone who loves reading scary stories.