Shirley Jackson: Her Chilling Tales

And A Glimpse Into Her Feminism

Shirley Jackson is an American writer who was known for her chilling works which are so realistic that make the readers question their world views such as set of rules, traditions, and male-dominated societies as well as women's struggles in society. She was very passionate about writing and her unique style gave her an important place in contemporary American literature. As a result, to honor Shirley Jackson, in recognition of her legacy, the annual Shirley Jackson Awards have been established for best horror fiction with outstanding achievement. Shirley Jackson Awards have been given annually since July 20, 2008. In this article, the works of Shirly Jackson which emerged from haunting imagination and her feminism will be examined.

Jackson's works are mostly pieces of horror and gothic fiction. She wrote six novels; The Road Through the Wall (1948), Hangsaman (1951), The Bird’s Nest (1954), The Sundial (1958), The Sundial (1958), The Haunting of the Hill House (1959) and We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962). Her well-known and most popular novels are The Haunting of the Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Both of these are adapted as movies and TV series that attract new readers' attention. But most importantly, she wrote many breathtaking short stories and they were collected in short story collection books. The most popular collected editions are The Lottery and Other Stories (1949) and Dark Tales (2016 – Penguin).

Adaptation of the novel, The Haunting of the Hill House (1959),

by the producer Mike Flanagan into Netflix in 2018

Shirley Jackson also wrote two memoirs which are Life Among Savages (1953) and Raising Demons (1957). In the memoirs, she advised the aspiring writers;

‘’Remember, too, that words on a page have several dimensions: they are seen, they are partially heard, particularly if they seem to suggest a sound, and they have a kind of tangible quality—think of the depressing sight of a whole great paragraph ahead of you, solidly black with huge heavy-sounding words.”(S.J),
“If you want your reader to go faster and faster make your writing go faster and faster. If you want your reader to go slower and slower, make your writing go slower and slower.” (S.J) the last one is “You will find that if you keep your story tight, with no swerving from the proper path, it will curl up quite naturally at the end, provided you stop when you have finished what you have to say.”(S.J)

An Overview of Literary Feminism

Feminism indeed has a long history. In the history of literary criticism, women have been excluded for a long time. Female literary critics who are Millet, Simone de Beauvoir, and Betty Friedan addressed the sex caste system as represented in literature and culture, they wrote about women authors in their literary criticism books. In the 19th century, there were three generations of female novelists. The golden age of Victorian authors was born between 1800 and 1820, The second generation was born between 1820 and 1840, and the third generation was born between 1840 and 1860. Elaine Showalter who is a literary critic and a writer, divided feminism into three major sections in her book A Literature of Their Own (1977). She is interested in minor writers and stated that women were overshadowed by the male-dominated society. She also illustrated the importance of the three major phases of feminism. Which are The Feminine, The Feminist, and Female. In The Feminine phase, female authors write under pen names (pseudonyms), and they imitate men, women writers do not interfere and do not state their ideas about women's rights in this phase. This phase lasted until the death of George Eliot. In the Feminist phase, women protested for their rights and they advocated minority rights. Role of the women in society was important in this phase. In the third phase, which is the female phase writers entered a new stage of self-awareness. The phase is still continuous presently authors do not protest or follow the previous phases. Instead, they found their way of writing by experimenting with new forms which gave birth to Modernism, later Post-modernism.  

Shirley Jackson's Feminism

Although Gothic literature is not entirely a genre that expresses feminism, Shirley Jackson indirectly included some of her feminist ideas and themes as well as symbols and messages in her gothic fiction and many Gothic tales. She illustrated and questioned male domination in society, the role of women as well and gender politics. She belongs the second-generation feminism and the feminist period according to the feminist theory.

 Shirley Jackson’s second most popular novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle includes themes such, as agoraphobia, discrimination, gender politics, and difficult familial relationships. It was written and published in 1965. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is Shirley Jackson’s last novel. The New Yorker magazine considered this novel of Shirley Jackson as ‘’an arch, feminist fairy tale’’ in one of their articles. The work successfully highlights the idea of patriarchy, social isolation, and a family tragedy. The novel is about a family, The Blackwoods. The story is told by 18-year-old Mary Katherine Blackwood. 

“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.”(Jackson 1).

We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)

Paperback – Deckle Edge, October 31, 2006

The Blackwood Family lives in a manor house in a rural area. Set on an estate in Vermont. The family consists of three people who are Mary Katherine Blackwood, also called Merricat, Constance Blackwood, and Julian Blackwood. Merricat is an eighteen-year-old, introverted girl who likes to spend time alone in the woods with her cat Jonas. She is a daydreamer with her creative active imagination and her clear descriptions.

“I remember that I stood on the library steps holding my books and looking for a minute at the soft hinted green in the branches against the sky and wishing, as I always did, that I could walk home across the sky instead of through the village.” (Jackson 7)   

Her older sister Constance is 26 years old and she is unable to leave their house due to her severe agoraphobia. Shirley Jackson also suffered from agoraphobia so it is clear to see the author’s reflection in this novel. Two sisters Mary Katherine and Constance get along with each other very well. They take care of each other and cuddle in their bed, fantasizing about flying over the moon and wondering if would it be nice to live there, on the moon. Their house is a very old house and there are various antiques in the house, Merricat buries some of these antique objects near the house in terms of protection.

“All our land was enriched with my treasures buried in it, thickly inhabited just below the surface with my marbles and my teeth and my colored stones, all perhaps turned to jewels by now, held together under the ground in a powerful taut web which never loosened, but held fast to guard us.” (Jackson 12) 

This action of Merricat can be associated with witchcraft because of Shirley Jackson’s interest in witchcraft. The third family member who lives with the sisters is Julian Blackwood who is their uncle. Julian Blackwood is unable to walk. Several years earlier a horrific murder was committed in the Blackwood family house. Most of the Blackwood family is killed. The arsenic was identified as a murder weapon and their cause of death was poisoning. Merricat, Constance, and Uncle Julian were the only survivors. Uncle Julian Blackwood also consumed the poisoned food so he was both mentally and physically paralysed. Uncle Blackwood is unable to walk and remember things properly. Although it is difficult to deal with the situation for two young girls, Merricat is happy to live with her uncle and sister in solitary. She expresses her feelings in this excerpt on page 139:

“I sat between Constance and Uncle Julian, in my rightful, my own and proper, place at the table...‘Mary Katherine should have anything she wants, my dear. Our most loved daughter must have anything she likes……‘You must never be punished. Lucy, you are to see to it that our most loved daughter Mary Katherine is never punished.’'Mary Katherine would never allow herself to do anything wrong; there is never any need to punish her.’‘I have heard, Lucy, of disobedient children being sent to their beds without dinner as a punishment. This must not be permitted with our Mary Katherine.’” (Jackson 139).

The relations between Blackwoods and the people are tense. Mary Katherine goes to town every Tuesday, to purchase some ingredients, food products, and cleaning supplies and to borrow some books from the public library since her sister Constance cannot go shopping because of her severe agoraphobia. The entire city hates the Blackwood family because they think that the family is peculiar, Also they are afraid of the family because of the incident that happened years ago related to poisoning. The children of the town sing their nursery rhyme when they see Mary Katherine in the town, shopping because they think that one of the sisters poisoned their own family.

“Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?/Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me./Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?/Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!” ” (Jackson 30).

With Mary Katherine’s observation of the citizens of the city, Shirley Jackson demonstrates the society’s values and the women in the background. She presents how females were pushed to be repressed by the male population.

‘’In this village, the men stayed young and did the gossiping, and the women aged with grey evil weariness and stood silently waiting for the men to get up and come home.’’ (Jackson 31).

The view of male domination in the novel is most present in the character Charles who is one of the examples of a demanding male figure who challenges the authority of female domination in the Blackwood house. He is the family cousin who appears years later but his only intention is to take over the family fortune to enrich himself. Charles takes over the patriarchal role in the family and interferes with their financial status.

The "we" in We Have Always Lived in the Castle refers to Mercat (Taissa Farmiga) and Constance (Alexandra Daddario). Charles (Sebastian Stan) is the new guy (Brainstorm Media)

 The other important work of Shirley Jackson where her feminist ideas are present is ''The Lottery''. It is a short story and it was first published in an issue of New Yorker magazine on June 26, 1948. Later the story was published in a short story collection of her. The Lottery and Other Stories was published by Farrar, Straus, and Company, in 1949, and it collected 24 haunting stories of Shirley Jackson.

''The Lottery'' is about the old traditions we unnecessarily demand to maintain. Shirley Jackson probably wanted to demonstrate the dangers of blindly following a tradition in a society that harms people as a whole. It tells the story of a murderous sacrificial ritual in a New England village. Every June, the villagers gather together for the annual lottery. Only men in the family can take the lottery paper, women are not allowed to do it.

“Well, now. ” Mr. Summers said soberly, “Guess we better get started, get this over with, so we can go back to work. Anybody ain’t here?” “Dunbar. ” several people said. “Dunbar. Dunbar. “Mr. Summers consulted his list. “Clyde Dunbar,” he said. “That’s right. He’s broken his leg, hasn’t he? Who’s drawing for him?” Me. I guess,” a woman said, and Mr. Summers turned to look at her. “Wife draws for her husband. ” Mr. Summers said. “Don’t you have a grown boy to do it for you, Janey?” Although Mr. Summers and everyone else in the village knew the answer perfectly well, it was the business of the official of the lottery to ask such questions formally. Mr. Summers waited with an expression of polite interest while Mrs. Dunbar answered.“Horace’s not but sixteen yet. ” Mrs. Dunbar said regretfully. “Guess I gotta fill in for the old man this year. “(Jackson 5)

This exercise, again demonstrates male domination in society. Every year Mr.Summershostst the lottery ceremony. First a household is chosen by the lottery and then each family member’s name is written on paper separately. One of whom is chosen to be a winner and the chosen victim is sacrificed, kills stoned to death. The villagers believe that thanks to the lottery tradition their crops will grow faster and that year will be a productive year for them. However, few of the citizens find the annual lottery tradition very savage and they oppose the idea.

’They do say," Mr. Adams said to Old Man Warner, who stood next to him, "that over in the north village, they're talking of giving up the lottery."Old Man Warner snorted. "Pack of crazy fools," he said. "Listening to the young folks, nothing's good enough for them. Next thing you know, they'll be wanting to go back to living in caves, nobody works anymore, live that way for a while. There used to be a saying about 'Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.' First thing you know, we'd all be eating stewed chickweed and acorns. There's always been a lottery, he added petulantly. "Bad enough to see young Joe Summers up there joking with everybody."Some places have already quit lotteries." Mrs. Adams said."Nothing but trouble in that," Old Man Warner said stoutly. "Pack of young fools.” “(Jackson 9).

In this excerpt, a villager explains his thoughts on the lottery tradition. The villagers blindly accept the lottery and witness the violent murder each year in the village. In the story, Bill Hutchinson’s paper hit the lottery which means one of their family members will be slaughtered as a victim of their annual lottery tradition. However, due to her fear, his wife Tessie rejects it by saying that her husband has not been given enough time.

A frame from the adaptation of The Lottery to a graphic novel by Miles Hyman

‘’People began to look around to see the Hutchinsons. Bill Hutchinson was standing quietly, staring down at the paper in his hand. Suddenly, Tessie Hutchinson shouted to Mr. Summers. “You didn’t give him time enough to take any paper he wanted. I saw you. It wasn’t fair!”“Be a good sport, Tessie,” Mrs. Delacroix called, and Mrs. Graves said, “All of us took the same chance. “Shut up, Tessie,” Bill Hutchinson said.’’(Jackson 14).

After that, the Hutchinson couple and their three children’s names are written again to choose one of them. The chosen one is Tessie Hutchinson. Then, in the last horrifying scene of the story, the villagers start to throw stones at Tessie.

“Tessie Hutchinson was in the center of a cleared space by now, and she held her hands out desperately as the villagers moved in on her. "It isn't fair," she said. A stone hit her on the side of the head.” “It isn't fair, it isn't right," Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.” “(Jackson 15).

 Shirley Jackson inspired various authors thanks to her inspiring mind, her great ability to create a successful plot, and her talent for writing effective gothic tales and novels with her essential writing style. She has been an inspiration to writers such as Stephen King, Paul Tremblay, Donna Tartt, and Neil Gaiman. The short, ''The Lottery'', also inspired Suzanne Collinston to write her most popular young adult series ‘’The Hunger Games Trilogy’’. Also, the life of Shirley Jackson has been adapted into cinema in January 2020. The movie ‘’Shirley’’ directed by Josephine Decker. Elisabeth Moss played Shirley Jackson and Michael Stuhlbarg played Shirley’s husband, the literary critic, Stanley Edgar Hyman. The movie had been adapted from the literary fiction and literary biography novel by Susan Scarf Merrell named ‘’Shirley’’. Not only the novel but also the movie inspired by Shirley Jackson’s real life and her haunted mind.

 To conclude, Shirley Jackson illustrated male-dominated societies, blindly followed traditions, women’s role in the family, and voting rights for women in her works discussed in this article, We Have Always Lived in the Castle and ''The Lottery''. She perfectly blended feminism with gothic elements although Gothic literature does not generally reflect the feminist themes. Reading Shirley Jackson is a great experience as her writing style is breathtaking. Her ability to tell a story and use the elements of Gothic creates constant suspense in the reader which makes them read more. Besides, it is a great pleasure to read her timeless works and to see her universal ideas about women in society and women's rights related to feminism.


  • Jackson, Shirley. We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Penguin Books, 2006.
  • Jackson, Shirley. "The Lottery." The Lottery and Other Stories, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005.

Lapin, Andrew. ''We Have Always Lived In The Castle' — And It Feels Like It'' May 16, 2019. Accessed from 3 September 2023