STARRED REVIEW
September 27, 2016

A luminous portrait of a literary life

By Ruth Franklin
When Shirley Jackson's now-classic story "The Lottery" appeared in the June 26, 1948, issue of The New Yorker, readers wrote in to the magazine decrying the story as "outrageous," "shocking," "gruesome" and "utterly pointless." In spite of such responses, within a year the story was included in Prize Stories of 1949 and 55 Short Stories from The New Yorker, acknowledging the power of Jackson's storytelling craft and introducing very widely a writer whose first novel, The Road Through the Wall (1948), had disappointing sales but cannily and hauntingly depicted the humorous, horrific and sometimes macabre irony of suburban life.
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When Shirley Jackson's now-classic story "The Lottery" appeared in the June 26, 1948, issue of The New Yorker, readers wrote in to the magazine decrying the story as "outrageous," "shocking," "gruesome" and "utterly pointless." In spite of such responses, within a year the story was included in Prize Stories of 1949 and 55 Short Stories from The New Yorker, acknowledging the power of Jackson's storytelling craft and introducing very widely a writer whose first novel, The Road Through the Wall (1948), had disappointing sales but cannily and hauntingly depicted the humorous, horrific and sometimes macabre irony of suburban life.

Ruth Franklin's elegant Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life now provides what has long been missing: a sensitive, incisive, thoroughly detailed reading of Jackson's stories and novels as they issue from the writer’s never-very-happy life. In an almost year-by-year examination, Franklin draws on letters, journals and Jackson's writings to narrate the days of a young woman whose own conventional mother was disappointed, and even horrified, that her daughter was not very conventional: "Geraldine wanted a pretty little girl, and what she got was a lumpish redhead."

Franklin nimbly guides us through Jackson's childhood in California, where she was always writing, and her family's move to Rochester, New York, in her senior year of high school. While attending Syracuse University, she met her future husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, and published her first story, "Janice," in the school's literary magazine. The book also chronicles her difficult, tumultuous marriage to Hyman, a professor and prominent literary critic, and her devotion to her four children.

Franklin provides sparkling readings of Jackson's writing, including the challenges she faced with each novel or story, ranging from her less well-known novel, Hangsaman, to her more familiar tales of urban chill, The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, as well as autobiographical collections such as Life Among the Savages. All of her writings dwell on the tension of inhabiting the roles of housewife and mother and bestselling author.

This luminous critical biography reveals a writer who thought her task—much like Hawthorne and Poe—was to pull back the curtain on the darkness of the human heart. Franklin smartly succeeds in drawing so colorful a portrait of the author that we’re encouraged to pick up one of her stories or novels and read Jackson all over again.

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Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson

By Ruth Franklin
Liveright
ISBN 9780871403131

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