A literary icon's resurgence
Shirley Jackson's noncomformist characters still resonate
What is it about North Bennington author Shirley Jackson that continues to drive interest in her work, more than fifty years after her death?
The author, known for her contributions to the genres of horror and speculative fiction as well as memoir, has recently experienced a resurgence of interest outside of local and literary circles. Last year, Netflix released a limited series inspired by Jackson's classic, "The Haunting of Hill House." This May, a theatrical release of "We Have Always Lived in the Castle" continued to introduce new audiences to Jackson's spooky storytelling with themes of mystery, suspense, and, often, psychology.
It's not just Hollywood that continues to dissect Jackson's impressive body of work, however. Each year, the national Shirley Jackson Awards honor works that continue Jackson's legacy in the "literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic." In 2016, biographer Ruth Franklin's "A Rather Haunted Life" also explored the ways in which Jackson influenced the American Gothic tradition—as well as her considerable role in documenting the (both literal psychological) lives of women in the mid-twentieth century.
"Nominees, jurors, and everyone involved or in consideration for the award have something good in common—we love Shirley Jackson's brand of dark fiction," said founding Shirley Jackson Awards board member Sarah Langan. "We're interested in the natural progression of her work and in some ways are the result of her. It's because of her that we've found each other."
"Her writing is subtle and forceful. Her stories leave you reeling. You are haunted when you read Shirley Jackson," added administrator and board member JoAnne Cox.
"Because many of her stories have female protagonists, and some stories have 'domestic' issues at their center, there is a unique perspective and experience to be enjoyed by reading her writing."
The unique perspective continues to be celebrated locally as well, with Shirley Jackson Day taking place each year in North Bennington on or around June 27. That date stems from one of Jackson's best-known works, "The Lottery," an eerie tale of ritual sacrifice in a small New England town (one not wholly unlike Jackson's own, in which many suspect she found inspiration). This year's event, held on June 22, was hosted by the John G. McCullough Free Library and The Left Bank, and featured readings from authors connected with the Shirley Jackson Awards.
"Given my longstanding affinity for the genres she influenced, it is an almost overwhelming honor and privilege to help with this event," said library director Jennie Rozycki. "Shirley Jackson Day is a popular event, and her books are still borrowed from the library on a regular basis."
Jackson (1916-1965) came to North Bennington with her husband, literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, when he taught at Bennington College. Her short story "The Lottery," written in 1948 for The New Yorker, remains a widely-anthologized classic of the genre, and "The Haunting of Hill House" was a National Book Award finalist. But much of Jackson's work faded from public consciousness for decades until her recent resurgence in popularity.
While the celebration is literary in nature, artist and Left Bank curator Rhonda Retray has also brought a visual element to Shirley Jackson Day in recent years by presenting shows with themes stemming from Jackson's work. This year, the exhibition is inspired by Jackson's 1954 novel, "The Bird's Nest," which portrays a young museum curator with multiple personality disorder.
"Our Bird's Nest portrait show asks the viewers to consider the portrait through a Shirley Jackson lens," Retray explained. "How is a portrait built? What does a portrait reveal about the subject, and how much of it is about the artist herself? All of our personalities contain multiple facets, or twigs and straw, that come together to form a complex being."
"Horror, dark fantasy, psychological suspense ... these genres, for lack of a better word, can be expressions of the horrors and dreadful things within ourselves, within others, or within our society," said Cox. "I personally find the growing dread and the silent horrors found in these works to be an outlet for thoughts about who were are, and who we can be."
The psychological probing prevalent in Jackson's writing often resonates with female readers in particular, and the author frequently subverted social constructs faced by women of her era.
In fiction, Jackson explores the depths of domestic isolation or entrapment, judgement, and identity with deft and impact. In her decidedly more comedic nonfiction works, the author reflected on the expectations of motherhood and femininity in a way that had rarely been presented in the past.
"What's interesting about Jackson's work is its honesty," said Langan. "They're never archetypes of what women are supposed to be and they never want the things women are supposed to want. They're messy and weird and sometimes sex confuses them. They're bad daughters and bad mothers and reluctant, duty-bound wives. They're funny and smart and they don't fit."
"I like to think that, in truth, no woman fits," Langan said, referencing the narrow, traditionalist view of the ideal woman still present in the 21st century. "Some of us just cover it up better."
The celebration, versus the persecution, of nonconformity among all sexes is sharply defended in Jackson's fictional works as well, and tends to touch a nerve among readers who may stray from the status quo.
"Her defense of outsiders and contrarians, especially in small town settings like those of 'The Lottery' and 'We Have Always Lived in the Castle' were something I very much needed and appreciated as a teenager," added Rozycki, who was first exposed to Jackson in high school. "I grew up in a small, insular farming community, so 'The Lottery' wasn't a stretch for my imagination."
For many readers, and even writers, as exemplified by finalists for the Shirley Jackson Awards, Jackson's unapologetic vindication of individuality compels them to return to her work, via the screen, page, or canvas, again and again. And with her heartfelt representations of female protagonists and their demons, Jackson's influence continues to resonate in a field once dominated by men.
"I'm an avid fan of speculative fiction and horror and, not too long ago, there weren't nearly enough women working in these genres, and female viewpoints were either scarce and/ or painfully lacking dimension," Rozycki said. "The few that did, however—Jackson included—I treasured. It's great that her influence is being given the recognition it deserves."
Cherise Madigan is a freelance writer.
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