Woman of the Week: Writer Shirley Jackson

Woman of the Week: Writer Shirley Jackson

This week’s pick: Shirley Jackson (1916-1965), the prolific mind behind such horror classics as the 1959 novel “The Haunting of Hill House” and the 1948 short story “The Lottery.”

Why we selected her: While there is never a wrong time to read Jackson, her work resonates particularly well during the spooky days around Halloween.

For those seeking a haunt, one needs not venture far from the tufted cushions of their favorite armchair to experience the physical and psychological dread that wallpapers the interiors of Jackson’s stories. It is, perhaps, this ability to illuminate an entire world within the span of a few pages that generated interest in adapting Jackson’s work for the screen throughout the years.

Shirley Jackson’s drawing of Hill House.

Take “Hill House,” for example, which inspired two movie versions (in 1963 and 1999) and was most recently adapted for the popular Netflix series “The Haunting of Hill House.” Although the show takes several questionable liberties with its source material, it features many quotes pulled directly from Jackson’s original text and a clever re-imagining (and casting) of the main characters.

Here, the main characters taken from the novel are relatives rather than complete strangers; Shirley (named after Jackson) understands death through her profession as a funeral home owner instead of through her own writing; and all of the family members bear a remarkable resemblance to both each other and the younger actors who play their flashback counterparts.

Shirley Jackson’s drawing of the first floor of Hill House.

Part of the visual appeal of “Hill House” will always stem from the house itself. It is not “sane,” after all — this much Jackson says in the opening and closing paragraphs of her novel:

Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

Jackson drew inspiration for her haunted house from a picture she found in a magazine, and she later mapped out her own version with detailed drawings of Hill House’s layout, its entrance (or face) and the byzantine floorplan of the home’s second-level. Such visual detail worms its way into the novel’s text, allowing the reader to picture the home in all of its irregular, elaborate dimensions — a characteristic that gives the book a certain inherent cinematic quality.

Those looking for a shorter, but no less thrilling read would do well to turn to “The Lottery,” originally published in The New Yorker in 1948. Celebrating the 70th anniversary of the story, which features a plot-line built around ritualistic stoning, The New Yorker pulled the controversial piece from the depths of its archives and digitized it for readers to find anew.

Galley proof of “The Lottery.”