Shirley Jackson

A Companion

by Kristopher Woofter (Volume editor)
©2021 Edited Collection XVIII, 328 Pages


2021 Bram Stoker Awards(R) Nominee for Superior Achievement in Non-Fiction
From the short story «The Lottery» to the masterworks The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson’s popular, often bestselling works experimented with popular generic forms (melodrama, folktale, horror, the Gothic, and the Weird) to create a uniquely apocalyptic vision of America and its contradictions.
With a Foreword by award-winning Jackson biographer Ruth Franklin, this collection features comprehensive critical engagement with Jackson’s works, including those that have received less scholarly attention. Among these are the novels The Road Through the Wall, The Bird’s Nest, and Hangsaman, as well as Jackson’s historical study, The Witchcraft of Salem Village. Also included are essays on Jackson’s darkly humorous collections Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons, on Stephen King’s «literary friendship» with Jackson, on the little-known film adaptations Lizzie (1957) and Hosszú Alkony (Long Twilight) (1997), and the first-ever extended analysis devoted to Jackson’s unpublished satirical cartoon sketches.
The collection’s five sections focus on Jackson’s style, key themes, and influence; her politics and poetics of space; her treatment of the «monstrous» mother and monstrousness of motherhood; her representations of outsiders and minorities; and moving-image adaptations of her work.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editor
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Foreword (Ruth Franklin)
  • Introduction (Kristopher Woofter)
  • Part I Reading Jackson: Style, Theme, Tradition
  • Shirley Jackson and American Folk Horror: The Public Face of Private Demons (Ralph Beliveau)
  • “How the Dinner Revolves”: Eating, Food, and Consumption in the Fiction of Shirley Jackson (Michael T. Wilson)
  • The Posthumous Style of Shirley Jackson (Daniel T. Kasper)
  • Raising Her Voice: Stephen King’s Literary Dialogue with Shirley Jackson (Carl H. Sederholm)
  • Part II The Politics and Poetics of Space
  • “Intrusions from the Outside World”: Shirley Jackson and the Politics and Poetics of Enclosure (Patrycja Antoszek)
  • “No one Can Ever Find Me”: Gingerbread Houses in Shirley Jackson’s Fiction (Dara Downey)
  • The “Terrible” House as Locus of Female Power in We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Elizabeth Mahn Nollen)
  • “Move Your Feet, Dear. I’m Conga-ing”: Drawing Circles around Domesticity in Shirley Jackson’s Cartoons (Michelle Kay Hansen)
  • Romancing the Nostalgic Future: Prophecy, Planning, and Postwar Architecture in The Sundial (Luke Reid)
  • Part III Mothers and Other Monsters
  • Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Secret of the Mother’s Desire in The Bird’s Nest (Wyatt Bonikowski)
  • Living an Aporia: Notes on Shirley Jackson’s Home Books and the Impossible-Possible of Motherhood (Rebecca Million)
  • Hangsaman: Writing the Self in Blood at the Margins (Ibi Kaslik)
  • Home Is Where the Heart Is(n’t): The House as Mother in Jackson’s House Trilogy (Mikaela Bobiy)
  • Part IV Outsiders and Minorities
  • Erotic Envy and the Racial Other in “Flower Garden” (Emily Banks)
  • Wicked Creature(s): Delirium and Difference in The Witchcraft of Salem Village (Stephanie A. Graves)
  • “A Lady of Undeniable Gifts but Dubious Reputation”: Reading Theodora in The Haunting of Hill House (Rebecca Stone Gordon)
  • Part V Jackson on Film and Television
  • “Some Disturbing Obstruction”: Lizzie from The Bird’s Nest (Will Dodson)
  • Walking Alone Together: Adapting Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock)
  • Long Twilight (Hosszú Alkony), Shirley Jackson, and the Eerie In-Between (Kristopher Woofter)
  • A Good Life?: Merricat, from Tyrant to Savior in We Have Always Lived in the Castle and Its Film Adaptation (Erin Giannini)
  • Afterword (Darryl Hattenhauer)
  • Bibliography
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index
  • Series Index

←xii | xiii→


The contributors to this collection deserve a warm thank you not only for their inspiring work, but also for their flexibility and enduring commitment to this project as it developed. I would also like to thank series editor Simon Bacon for long and lively email conversations and incredible support. Special thanks to Laurence Jackson Hyman, J. S. Holly, Sarah Hyman DeWitt, and Barry Hyman for permission to include ten of Jackson’s unpublished cartoon sketches; to Heidi Daehler for permission to include her beautiful portrait of Shirley Jackson; to Ruth Franklin for so enthusiastically agreeing to write the Foreword; and to Darryl Hattenhauer, whose book Shirley Jackson’s American Gothic (2003) is one of the key testaments to Jackson’s literary influence at a time when “Shirley Jackson” was still a name most would relegate to the margins of American literature. Thanks also to Dawson College, Dean Andrea Cole, and the students in my course, “Shirley Jackson and the Horror Tradition”; the Montreal Monstrum Society and its journal MONSTRUM; and finally the Horror Area of the PCA/ACA, where several of the chapters in this collection have their origins.

For their continued support and encouragement, I would also like to thank my partner Cory Legassic; my chosen family and collaborators Tanya Cochran, Mario DeGiglio-Bellemare, Will Dodson, Erin Giannini, Anne Golden, Karen Herland, Lorna Jowett, Carl Sederholm; my brother Aaron Woofter; and my parents, Tim and Joni Jo Woofter.

Ruth Franklin


Shirley Jackson’s first and probably last attempt at literary criticism was a nineteen-page college term paper on the “basic duality between … the ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ sides” of Hemingway’s nature, in his writing and his personal life. Her grade doesn’t survive, but Stanley Edgar Hyman, whom Jackson met at Syracuse University and went on to marry, received an A on a paper he wrote critiquing it. Hyman would become a well-known literary critic; Jackson’s view of his profession may be inferred from the character of Arnold Waite in Hangsaman (1951), a caricature of a literature scholar who shares certain characteristics with Hyman. As Waite’s daughter describes him, “He seems perpetually surprised at the world’s never being quite so intelligent as he is, although he would be even more surprised if he found out that perhaps he is himself not so intelligent as he thinks” (Jackson 2013, 11).

Aside from an essay detailing her fondness for Samuel Richardson and a smattering of book reviews, Jackson seems to have abandoned criticism after the Hemingway paper. Literature, to her, didn’t require analysis – it was simply part of the air she breathed. That’s not to say, however, that she cut herself off from the world of scholarship. In college, she developed a serious interest in folklore and witchcraft that she pursued throughout her life, immersing herself in texts ranging from the esoteric to the well known. She introduced Hyman to The Golden Bough (1890), anthropologist Sir James Frazer’s multivolume treatment of magic and ritual among pre-modern cultures, which would become a key influence on his work. The book collection they amassed together eventually numbered in the tens of thousands, many of them rare, out-of-print, or scholarly books. And after her career as a fiction writer took off, Jackson found herself in high demand as a teacher at writing workshops, work that she surprised herself by enjoying.

Literature was also an important engine of Jackson’s relationships. When Hyman began teaching literature at Bennington College, the couple immersed ←xv | xvi→themselves in college social life, and Jackson would count many professors among her close friends. The couple’s lifelong friendship with Ralph Ellison included close dissections of one another’s work. And one of Jackson’s most intimate friendships, with her correspondent Jeanne Beatty, began with a letter discussing children’s books.

The sphere of literary criticism, though, Jackson left to Hyman. She assiduously read her reviews, but she declined to engage much with critics of her work. This is understandable. Jackson had some loyal admirers among the critics of her era – mainly newspaper book reviewers, although a few writers attempted longer analyses – but the majority of them had trouble grasping her creative project in all its complexity. Those who praised her literary novels were taken aback by her turn to memoir in her humorous works about her family, while fans of her memoirs often had trouble appreciating her dark and suspenseful fiction. Her most famously befuddling work was “The Lottery” (1948), which inspired readers of The New Yorker to write in by the score demanding to know what the story meant. Jackson signed off on a form letter by a New Yorker staffer stating that she had “chosen a nameless little village to show, in microcosm, how the forces of belligerence, persecution, and vindictiveness are, in mankind, endless and traditional and that their targets are chosen without reason.” But when asked about the story’s meaning, she offered enigmatic answers – or none at all. “If you can’t figure it out, I’m not going to tell you,” she told a friend’s teenage daughter.

After Jackson’s early death, at age 48, Hyman was dismayed by the many obituaries that slighted or misunderstood her contribution to literature: One called her “the Virginia Werewolf of séance-fiction writers,” while another identified her only as the author of a “Horror Classic,” reducing her body of work to “The Lottery” (a horror story only in the most generous understanding of the term). He took it upon himself to cement her place in the literary canon, publishing an anthology called The Magic of Shirley Jackson (1966) that featured a broad selection of her writing. Jackson’s “fierce visions of dissociation and madness, of alienation and withdrawal, of cruelty and terror, have been taken to be personal, even neurotic, fantasies,” Hyman wrote in his introduction. “Quite the reverse: they are a sensitive and faithful anatomy of our times, fitting symbols for our distressing world of the concentration camp and the Bomb” (1966, viii). But Hyman died in 1970, only five years after his wife, ←xvi | xvii→leaving her reputation largely untended. “The Lottery” remained one of the most frequently anthologized short stories in America, but over the next few decades, many of Jackson’s novels fell out of print. The academic criticism of her work was sparse and diffuse.

Now, thankfully, things have changed. In the decade since the Library of America inducted Jackson into its canon, an explosion in Jackson studies has taken place. With the exception of Special Delivery (1960), a guide for new mothers to which she contributed only a few original pieces, all of her work is back in print. A new generation of literary scholars, often more flexible on the tricky subject of genre, have found new avenues into Jackson’s work via feminist and queer theory. Many of them are featured in these pages.

Though she might be surprised by some of the implications contemporary readers have drawn from her work – her horror upon learning that a critic had called Hangsaman “an eerie novel about lesbians” is well known – I imagine Jackson bestowing her enigmatic smile upon this development. The critics she mocked, like Hangsaman’s Arnold Waite, were those who took a purely theoretical stance toward literature rather than recognizing it as part of the world we live in. For Jackson, fiction wasn’t meant to be put on a pedestal and gazed at from a distance. It belonged in the hot mess of life: a springboard for dinner table conversation, an oasis for children at bedtime, a bridge to cement a friendship, or simply a comfort in the storm.

←xvii | 1→

Kristopher Woofter


I am not above the law, but somehow I make the law, which so many other people do not.

Come Along with Me ([1968] 1984, 27)

The End of the World at Home: Shirley Jackson’s Cosmic-Domestic

Much of the essential philosophy and aesthetic of Shirley Jackson finds its way into Come Along with Me, the novel she left unfinished at the time of her death in August 1965.1 In this story of a widow who erases her past, moves to a random city, and creates an entirely new identity for herself as Mrs. Angela Motorman, Jackson takes up in whimsical fashion the plight of so many of her protagonists – almost invariably women – to “write their own narrative.” That is, to find a place in the world where their choices mean something; where their experience, both public and private, receives acknowledgment and empathy; and where they are not only visible, but “expected” ([1959] 1984, 28), to quote Eleanor Vance upon her arrival at Hill House. While “markedly different from anything she had previously written” (Franklin 2016, 491), Come Along with Me is the logical extension of Jackson’s previous work, a wickedly comical self-actuated personal apocalypse that seems also to implicate the world around its protagonist.2 Mrs. Motorman offers a ←1 | 2→perfectly “odd” introduction to the strange world of Shirley Jackson, refashioning an unsatisfying reality to suit herself. Let’s begin at the end . . . .

Mrs. Motorman, a clairvoyant, lives in a world full of potential ghosts, an early “gift” that subsided during her marriage, but is returning gradually now that husband Hughie is dead. Shades of Jackson’s life creep into the details that accumulate around Mrs. Motorman’s troubled youth, and a marriage that seems to have tethered her to an ordinary, immoveable life. Of her childhood with a mother who tried to ground her, Mrs. Motorman speaks regretfully, yet there is a therapeutic, hopeful tone to the recollection: “That’s not a good way for a girl to grow up. It’s easy to say that if I knew then what I know now I could have handled it better; how can anyone handle things if her head is full of voices and her world is full of things no one else can see? I’m not complaining” (1995, 17). Mrs. Motorman, “not complaining,” carries a confidence notably lacking in Jackson’s prior protagonists, who otherwise share her unique perspective on the world. Elizabeth Richmond from The Bird’s Nest (1951), Natalie Waite of Hangsaman (1954), and Eleanor Vance of The Haunting of Hill House (1959), for example, experience extreme anxiety, dissociation, and alienation as the result of similar “voices” and “things no one else can see.” Mrs. Motorman celebrates her difference from others, yet there is still here the familiar Jackson ambiguity: The gleefully experimental attitude it produces in her seems on occasion a kind of pathological symptom. For example, as I argue elsewhere (2019, 232), there is a touch of the megalomaniacal in Mrs. Motorman’s sentiment that her new city was “correct and complete, set up exactly for my private use, fitted out with quite the right people, waiting for me to come” (8). Such thoughts carry an unsettlingly subjective undercurrent, especially for readers of Jackson’s prior novels, where megalomania, while often darkly humorous, is handled with far less whimsy.3 Consider Hangsaman, in which protagonist Natalie Waite’s near-(self-?)annihilation in the novel’s final act comes with similar condescending views of the world as viciously focused on her alone: “It seemed pitiful that these automatons should be created and wasted, never knowing more than a minor fragment of the pattern in which they were involved, to learn and follow through insensitively ←2 | 3→a tiny step in the great dance which was seen close up as the destruction of Natalie, and, far off, as the end of the world” (2013, 201). Natalie’s ideas here are so all-encompassing and internalized, they collapse personal conflict into a full-scale apocalypse with all of society bent upon her annihilation. This is an instance of what I call Jackson’s cosmic-domestic, where the acutely interior and the broadly exterior collapse together to open cracks in “reality.” So-called civilized society in Jackson is rarely civil, but often acts eerily in conjunction against the protagonist, like a cruel and vicious cabalistic collective (discussed further below). What Natalie registers here, and what Mrs. Motorman sees as a kind of stage for her to sashay onto in her new role(s), is always potentially threatening. But with the same hints of the sinister Crowd, comes a similar discomfort in these characters’ almost god-like posturing. Jackson thus introduces disturbing uncertainties into Mrs. Motorman’s rather playful interactions with strangers and ghosts.4

Figure 1.Estelle Parsons as Mrs. Angela Motorman in Come Along with Me, a 1982 television adaptation of Jackson’s unfinished novel, directed by Joanne Woodward (PBS).

←3 | 4→Mrs. Motorman’s journey, as implied by her new name, is relentlessly forward-moving. Jackson biographer Ruth Franklin notes that, not long before her death, the author sent her editor Carol Brandt a “strange, vaguely worded letter” (491). Franklin continues: “She was about to leave for a wonderful journey, she said, where she would meet many new people” (494). Though Brandt’s speculation was that Jackson had had a premonition of her own death, and Franklin’s that Jackson might have planned to leave her husband, the sentiment here to “step through a crack and disappear” (494) mirrors Mrs. Motorman’s own motives, suggesting that Jackson’s mention of journeys referred to the new novel. Mrs. Motorman strips her identity bare and leaves all familiarity behind. She thinks, “I’m giving birth” (11), when she says her new name for the first time.5 Jackson complements this rebirth with a comically irreverent literary “execution” of her husband. She writes, in an exchange between the “newborn” Mrs. Motorman and her new landlord, Mrs. Faun:

“And what do you do, Mrs. Motorman?” she asked me.
“I dabble in the supernatural,” I told her. […] “I just buried my husband,” I said.
“I’ve just buried mine,” she said.
“Isn’t it a relief?” I said.
“What?” she said.
“It was a very sad occasion,” I said.
“You’re right,” she said, “it’s a relief.” (12)

While Mrs. Motorman’s clairvoyance certainly forebodes the return of Hughie in some form or other in the unfinished novel (we’ll never know), the sense of freedom from patriarchal shackles in light of Hughie’s death is palpable in this passage, expressed with a sense of gleeful “relief” that perhaps requires a bit more nuance in the telling. Or perhaps not. When Mrs. Motorman backtracks a bit, with a superficial gesture toward etiquette (“It was a very sad occasion” [12]), Mrs. Faun’s affirmation justifies the more upfront original sentiment.←4 | 5→

Mrs. Motorman welcomes her new reality, tangled as it is with the living – the people she will meet in her new city – and the dead (the revenants she will see and hear in her role as a newly “reopened” medium). Essentially a runaway, Mrs. Motorman rewrites reality: “I thought I could make it up as I went along,” she says, believing that in doing so she “somehow make[s]‌ the law, which so many other people do not” (27). The attitude here echoes across Jackson’s work, registering particularly strongly in the wholesale escape into a matriarchal fantasy created by Merricat and Constance Blackwood in We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962).6 This kind of totalizing reconstruction of the world to suit oneself (usually in response to unspoken trauma) is particularly reminiscent of another late Jackson work, the short story, “Louisa, Please Come Home,” which treats the subject of running away from home at length. Franklin (400, 491) notes the similarities between Louisa Tether and the woman who eventually dubs herself Mrs. Motorman, both of whom actively, successfully erase their past, “tethered” selves. Says Louisa, “what I intended all along is to fade into some background where they would never see me” (14).7 Conversely, Mrs. Motorman declares of the people she will meet on her journey, “I must say I like it better when they look at you; a lot of the time people seem to be scared of finding out that other people have real faces, as though if you looked at a stranger clearly and honestly and with both eyes you might find yourself learning something you didn’t actually want to know” (7). The degree to which this fear of people’s “real faces” permeates Jackson’s work cannot be overstated. One of the most unsettling, even horrific aspects of Jackson’s work is the seemingly collective apathy of the Crowd that works to alienate the protagonist, stripping her of confidence and agency.8 Heather Havrilesky writes that

feelings of dread and panic, paired with the desperate hope that the deluded crowd will snap out of it and come to its senses, lie at the heart of what makes Shirley Jackson’s ←5 | 6→work unforgettable. […] The sinister forces the heroine perceives are real, but they’re just ephemeral enough, by design, to make her doubt herself repeatedly. In the end, the self-possessed woman becomes the possessed. (2016, n.p.)


XVIII, 328
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2021 (June)
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2021. XVIII, 328 pp., 37 fig. col., 12 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Kristopher Woofter (Volume editor)

Kristopher Woofter teaches courses in horror, the Gothic, and the Weird tradition in literature and the moving image in the Department of English at Dawson College, Montréal, Québec. He has co-edited several collections, including American Twilight: The Cinema of Tobe Hooper (2021), Joss Whedon vs. the Horror Tradition: The Production of Genre in Buffy and Beyond (2019), and Recovering 1940s Horror Cinema: Traces of a Lost Decade (2015). He has also published essays on the series Supernatural (2020), Caitlín R. Kiernan (2019), George A. Romero (2018), pseudo-documentary (2018), The Cabin in the Woods (2014), and the Gothic documentary (2013).


Title: Shirley Jackson
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348 pages