Literature

Shirley Jackson’s Scariest

Photo by Nicole Rees-Williams.

Following the recent success of Netflix’s, The Haunting of Hill House, this spooky season is the perfect time to discover some of Shirley Jackson’s scariest works:

Rhian Lock on The Lottery (1948)

First published in The New Yorker in 1948, The Lottery received more backlash than any piece ever published by the magazine, with many cancelling subscriptions and boycotting Jackson. I first read Jackson’s short story in my first year as an English Literature undergraduate, and it was one of the texts that stuck with me the most out of my entire degree. I remember reading the story in a seminar and feeling an eerie collective tension building in the room as we each turned the pages. Whilst The Lottery isn’t your typical Halloween-y story – there’s no ghouls, witches, or haunted castles to be found here – what’s inside is arguably scarier than any of that. 

The Lottery opens in a perfectly normal day in a small, rural village, and details the excited villagers’ preparations for an annual ritual that they call the ‘lottery’. Whilst at first it seems like an antiquated but harmless bit of fun and games; it becomes increasingly apparent that things are not as they seem. Whilst the story is only a few pages long, its ending packs more of a punch than most of the ‘scary’ stories that I’ve read.  The Lottery creeps up on you, leaves you reeling, and will keep you up at night questioning the world around you. 

Alexa Price on The Summer People (1948)

Although it is one of Jackson’s lesser-known short stories, ‘The Summer People’ is a perfect spooky season read. If you loved the poetic style and tone of ‘The Lottery’, this terrifying tale is one for you! Following the decision to stay at their country cottage for another month, the extremely ordinary Mr. and Mrs. Allison try to ignore the massive change in the attitude of the local village, who all insist that “nobody ever stayed at the lake past Labor Day before,” and who then continue to make it painstakingly obvious – at least to the reader! – that everybody would like them to leave. By slowly being cut off from their supplies – their groceries, gas, phone line, and mail – Mr. And Mrs. Allison begin to realize why this is, but are seemingly in denial of these changes, though with every inconvenience looms a larger, far more prominent peril. Though there is no sign of your typical spooky season icons here, I can assure you that the ending of this story is beyond the acts of Frankenstein or Dracula and will leave you in a total trance!

The slow but steady increase of tension caused by the themes of country and city life, breaking tradition and consequence reminds us of why Jackson is in fact the Queen of Horror in the literary world. Her use of figurative language will always bring you to return to this short but fantastic tale; you can read ‘The Summer People’ a hundred times and I can promise that it will always leave you with something, whether it be new queries, new ideas, or even just those spooky season feels! 

Rhian Lock on We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962)

‘My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance…. Everyone else in my family is dead.’

If you’re looking for a spectacularly weird and compelling read this Halloween, look to Shirley Jackson’s final novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle, a tale of alienation, magic, and revenge. Jackson was known for her ability to write beautifully descriptive yet hauntingly chilling stories, and this novel is the perfect example.

Mary Blackwood lives in isolation with her loving sister and her skittish Uncle Julian in a dilapidated mansion on the outskirts of their village in 1960s Vermont. After the tragic and unexplained poisoning of the entire family, the townsfolk ostracize and torment the surviving Blackwoods, who become the inspiration for superstitious gossip and creepy nursery rhymes. Told from the perspective of Mary, the novel details the peculiar day-to-day happenings of the trio until an estranged cousin shows up at their doorstep, looking to reconcile with them… or so they think. Who is this mysterious stranger, and what does he want with the Blackwoods? What happened to the others?

         We Have Always Lived in the Castle is creepy, curious, and gloomy – what more could you ask for?

Lottie Ennis on The Haunting of Hill House (1959)

Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House (1959) has been described by Stephen King as one of the most important horror novels of the twentieth century. Considering its ability to create suspense and terror, I would have to agree. The novel takes the reader on a spectacular journey within the classic haunted house dynamic but creates a narrative which means it is not just ghostly event after ghostly event. The depth of characterisation and description results in a full story in which the reader can lose themselves in, instead of just waiting for a scary part. This focus on the characters also builds up the suspense and tension within the story and the turning points within the narrative are unexpected and unsettling. 

In terms of horror and terror, this book is scary, but I found it too enticing to put down. Even though the story is from 1959 and you would expect that everything has been done in the horror genre since then, I still felt the plot was refreshing and exciting. Although, in my opinion, the problems within the story weren’t necessarily resolved, the reader is still left with questions which means that long after finishing the book, as time goes on, we as readers are still thinking and considering the story. This is the mark of a very compelling novel and is indicative of the fact that Jackson was a master of her craft. If you are looking for genuine suspense and thrills, then this is the book for you this Halloween. 

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