The Shirley Jackson Reading List

Elisabeth Moss and 'Shirley' gift us an excuse to revisit one of America's most immense talents, and we provide the literary roadmap.

Shirley Screenshot
Neon

This article is part of The Reading List, a monthly column in which we encourage you to take your enthusiasm for a particularly groovy film and direct it into a wide array of extracurricular studies.


Shirley Jackson is a badass. Her novels, essays, short stories, letters, and probably even her grocery lists are brutal assaults upon the dimwitted, careless, and heartless. Jackson takes no shit and no prisoners. Her words erupt on the page, and you’ll need more than sunglasses and SPF 100 to protect yourself from her blazing fire.

Josephine Decker and Elisabeth Moss agree. Their new film, Shirley, shines a spotlight on Jackson, celebrating the author in all her complicated, tortured, brilliant splendor. Their adaptation of Jackson’s life is not interested in a birth-to-death narrative. No, it tackles a very specific time in the author’s life after she’s snatched some fame through the publication of her short story “The Lottery.” Jackson is contemplating her next novel when a pair of young lovers invade her home.

As Decker did with Madeline’s Madeline, Shirley strives to understand the inner life of its characters, relishing in the intimate moments of our hero, and stirring a greater need to know more. Don’t worry; we’ve got you. Assembled below are not just the very best of Jackson’s writings, but the novels and stories that will help you understand the author’s psyche.


Shirley

Susan Scarf Merrell wrote the 2014 novel from which the film sprang. Like the movie, it depicts the domestic war between Jackson and her snooty professor husband when two newlyweds share their residence for a semester. The book reads more like a thriller than the movie, at times attempting to replicate Jackson’s mastery over gothic horror, but it feels lacking after experiencing the story first as a film. Merrell does solid work, but Moss boosts her character and writing. Give it a go, but you’re here for Jackson, right?


Hangsaman

Hangsaman is the novel Jackson is writing throughout Shirley. It’s loosely inspired by the disappearance of Bennington College student Paula Jean Welden on December 1, 1946. The title is a reference to a traditional folk ballad, “The Gallows Tree,” which opens each stanza with “Slack your rope, hangs a man! Slack it for a while.”

The book follows a young woman who aches to flee her tyrannical father and the prison walls of their home. Unfortunately, the freedom that college offers her is not what she was hoping it to be. Jackson devilishly jumps back and forth between drama and satire, seemingly taking particular delight in the reader’s emotional whiplash. When reality fails the protagonist, she dips deep into her imagination, but even there, corruption awaits.

Most folks start on Jackson with The Haunting of Hill House or “The Lottery” (stay tuned), but Hangsaman offers everything promised in those stories with the bonus of not being as culturally dissected as the others. Those aren’t papercuts on your fingertips; the novel bites.


Life Among Savages

Jackson assembled a funky semi-fictionalized memoir by collecting various essays and short stories originally published in periodicals like Good Housekeeping, Woman’s Day, and Mademoiselle. Published a year after Hangsaman, Life Among Savages is a viciously funny assault on domesticity. Tracking the life of a mother over the course of six years as more and more children come out of her body, the stories act as much as a celebration of family as they caution against it.

Similar to most of Jackson’s work, laughter, terror, and revulsion are all appropriate responses. The author would follow Life Among Savages with the equally compelling and grim comedy, Raising Demons. These books are a direct line into the joy and pain that fueled Jackson’s work. Essential reading for those that discovered her through the usual high school curriculum.


The Lottery and Other Stories

Speaking of the usual high school curriculum, most of you out there probably first experienced Jackson’s talent through the title tale of The Lottery and Other Stories. If, for some miraculous reason, you managed to avoid “The Lottery” during your education, now is the time to jam it into your eyeballs. It’s the kind of story that rewires brains. Prepare yourself.

“The Lottery” details the stoning ceremony committed every year as a means of maintaining the health and the growth of a small American town. Yes, Ari Aster certainly crossed paths with Jackson a few times before unleashing Midsommar upon the world. When the story first appeared in The New Yorker in 1948, the publication was inundated with furious letters of contempt. Jackson sliced into the dark current running through nationalism, and her surgery stung.

Of course, this collection is more than one short story. Containing twenty-five tales that range from the grotesque to the wry to the silly, The Lottery and Other Stories will keep you awake for several nights. Try to consume just one; I dare ya.


The Haunting of Hill House

Rediscovered recently, thanks to the Netflix series, The Haunting of Hill House may very well be Jackson’s masterpiece. We’ve been blessed by two righteous adaptations and one ’90s embarrassment, but none of them quite captures the magic of Jackson’s prose or the lingering dread of her narrative.

A paranormal investigator invites several folks to spend the night in the supposedly haunted Hill House, but only three accept his offer. Eleanor is a shy mouse of a person due to her emotionally abusive relationship with her mother. Theodora is an out-going bohemian, eager to prove her worth in the face of any challenge. Luke plays host to the others as he expects to inherit Hill House come morning. They are alone within its walls, or so they hope.

The Haunting of Hill House is one of those books that stick to the walls of your brain. Scraping it off is impossible.


We Have Always Lived In The Castle

The 1962 mystery was Jackson’s final novel. At merely 214 pages, We Have Always Lived In The Castle remains a sumptuous sit. The details are slow going, but unwind with lurid shock. It’s the perfect follow-up to The Haunting of Hill House. Home is where the heart is, and it pumps thick, rich, hateful blood.

Mary Katherine “Merricat” Blackwood speaks to the reader. Six years prior, her family suffered a horrendous tragedy leaving her and her sister under the care of Uncle Julian. They are prisoners to their estate as the nearby village will have nothing to do with them. To tell you more would spoil the fun (and the horror), but know that We Have Always Lived In The Castle is a tremendous exercise in delivering dirt, and twisting the tabloid hunger of the reader upon itself. You could use a shower after this one.


The Bird’s Nest

The Bird’s Nest is another Jackson novel that traps you inside a mind caught in torment, but it does so in an utterly unique fashion. Elizabeth Richmond suffers from multiple personality disorder. You get to know her through each of the folks occupying her brain as each chapter rotates through their points of view. The experience is jarring, uncomfortable, and — like all Jackson tales — utterly enthralling.


The Road Through The Wall

Jackson’s first novel is an act of revenge against her parents, whom she deemed to be intolerant, greedy fiends. Set during the late 1930s amongst the falsely warm smiles of a middle-class California neighborhood, The Road Through The Wall attacks human hypocrisy, tearing into the dark ideals hidden beneath neighbors claiming geniality. Those who don’t practice what they preach are the greatest demons of all.


A Letter to Mrs. White

Do you want to have a good time? You gotta read Shirley Jackson’s splendid takedown of Mrs. White, who dared to write the author a letter criticizing her work. It’s merely a one-sentence response, and it is less savage than you might expect, but deliciously on brand. In 2015, the letter got a viral boost, thanks to Twitter.


Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life

For those still thirsting for more Shirley Jackson content, you should jump on Ruth Franklin‘s 2016 biography. It covers some of the same ground as Shirley, but in much, much more detail. Franklin makes it her mission to elevate Jackson’s status within the Literati, placing her next to Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

After you’ve devoured her bibliography, such big talk is hard to argue, but if you need further evidence, Franklin lays it out there for you. Also, Franklin uncovered loads of previously unpublished correspondence. Since you obviously enjoyed her response to Mrs. White, you’re going to have a damn good time with the stockade of letters on display here.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.