Shirley Jackson’s literary legacy: from the shadows to the spotlight

Trinity College symposium is set to explore the American writer’s growing reputation

December 14th, 2021 would have been American writer Shirley Jackson’s 105th birthday. Although she was well-known during her lifetime, following her death in 1965 her work fell into relative obscurity. Over the past decade, however, a wave of new critical and creative work has brought her writing to the attention of a new generation of readers.

Jackson, one of the most important American writers of the postwar era, is once again in the cultural spotlight. Trinity College Dublin will commemorate her birth on the evening of December 14th with a free online event exploring the reasons why the Jackson Renaissance is happening, and discussing the past, present and future landscapes of Shirley Jackson studies.

Between 1948 – when she first rocketed to public notice with the publication of her controversial story The Lottery – and 1965, Jackson published six full-length novels, dozens of short stories, several books for children, countless magazine pieces, and two volumes of humorous family memoirs. Her work was twice adapted for the big screen during her lifetime – most famously in 1963, when her immensely influential supernatural horror novel The Haunting of Hill House (1959) was filmed as The Haunting.

One of Jackson’s most notable literary qualities was her remarkable versatility. Indeed, the popularity of her more overtly Gothic and horror-related material has meant that her skill as one of her era’s finest humorists has, until recently, often been overlooked. She wrote witty stories about her experiences as a wife and mother for the lucrative women’s magazine market, while working on a series of novels that focus upon troubled young women who find themselves unable to conform to the restrictive expectations of the world around them. Yet even in Jackson’s ostensibly lightweight humorous sketches, we see glimpses of darkness, and moments of irrepressible humour surface in even her darkest works of fiction.

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However, despite the considerable degree of commercial and critical success that she accrued during her lifetime, in the decades following Jackson’s death, her reputation waned, and she was largely denied the scholarly attention that her work deserved.

As event co-organiser Janice Deitner outlines in a piece written for the symposium (available on the event website), in the United States, children often read The Lottery in school and later remember only the intense experience. Beyond this story, many know little or nothing of Jackson and her work. Nevertheless, she has had a significant impact upon the development of the horror genre; Stephen King has often cited her work as a major influence upon his own fiction, as do the current generation of horror writers, some of whom administer the Shirley Jackson Awards in her honour.

The extent of this influence was again made clear when legendary genre editor Ellen Datlow compiled When Things Get Dark (Titan, 2021), a collection of short stories inspired by Jackson, written by many of today’s most prominent horror and fantasy authors, among them Laird Barron, Elizabeth Hand, Kelly Link, Carmen Maria Machado and Paul Tremblay. Datlow’s collection is just one of a series of Jackson-related publishing events over the past decade, including the appearance of the posthumous collection Let Me Tell You (2015). Immediately prior to its release, yhe New Yorker (which first printed The Lottery) published two stories from the volume, along with interviews with Jackson’s eldest son, Laurence Jackson Hyman, who edited the collection in collaboration with his sister, Sarah Hyman Dewitt. Soon after this return to literary prominence, Ruth Franklin published a new, critically acclaimed biography of the author entitled Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life (2016).

The revival of popular interest in Jackson’s work was further bolstered in 2018 by the release of the first film adaptation of her classic final novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), and of Mike Flanagan’s Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House, which is loosely inspired by Jackson’s novel. Penguin Classics and Library of America have released new editions of her work with introductions by high-profile figures such as director Guillermo del Toro and authors Victor LaValle, Joyce Carol Oates and Otessa Moshfegh. Jackson herself has also been fictionalised: she and her husband, the critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, both feature in Shirley: A Novel (2014) by Susan Scarf Merrell, which was adapted for the screen in 2020. The publication earlier in 2021 of The Selected Letters of Shirley Jackson, edited by Laurence Jackson Hyman, with TCD’s Bernice M Murphy as academic consultant, brought further public and critical attention to the author’s life and writing.

There have also been a number of significant academic developments in Jackson studies. An increasing volume of journal articles, book chapters, edited collections, conference papers , dissertations and PhD theses is indicative of the current boom in academic engagement in Jackson’s work. Popular literature, including horror and Gothic studies, is one of the major research and teaching areas of the Trinity College School of English. Three of our PhD graduates have completed theses partially or wholly about Jackson, and her fiction is very popular with our undergraduate students.

Event co-organiser Bernice M Murphy edited the first essay collection dedicated to Jackson (Shirley Jackson: Essays on the Literary Legacy, 2005). In 2018, Murphy secured a Provost’s PhD Award to work with Janice Deitner on a PhD project examining the body/mind divide in Jackson’s critically neglected writing. Dara Downey, who completed her PhD and postdoctoral project in TCD and lectures on the Trinity Access Programme, is completing a literary biography of Jackson for Palgrave’s Literary Lives series (forthcoming 2023).

Trinity is therefore ideally positioned to host one of the first international events dedicated solely to Jackson’s writing and critical standing. As well as celebrating Jackson’s birthday, the symposium will also help map the future of Jackson studies.

Reading Shirley Jackson in the Twenty-First Century will take place online at the Trinity Long Room Hub on Tuesday, December 14th, from 5-8pm. Registration is free and details can be found here.

Conference website