Shirley Jackson was born in 1916 in San Francisco, California, even though she claimed for the rest of her life that she was born in 1919. Jackson’s socialite mother verbally abused her daughter, who consequently grew up with low self-esteem and a fragile sense of identity. Jackson began writing when she was a teenager and focused seriously on her work in high school and college. In 1940, she graduated from Syracuse University, where she had studied English, published stories in the school literary journal, and begun her own literary journal, the Spectre, with a classmate Stanley Edgar Hyman. After graduating, she and Hyman married. Hyman became a literary critic, and they eventually had four children.
Jackson published her first short story, “My Life with R. H. Macy,” in the New Republic in 1941. From then on, she published stories frequently in well-regarded magazines and literary journals, dividing her time between writing and raising her children. In 1945, Jackson and Hyman moved from their home in New Hampshire to the small town of North Bennington, Vermont, where Hyman assumed a teaching position at Bennington College.
Jackson was unhappy in North Bennington. Independent and eccentric and with her own successful work as a writer, Jackson failed to fit into the role of “faculty wife” that she was expected to fill. She drank, smoked, was interested in magic and witchcraft, and often angered her children’s schools by being too demanding. She was a devoted mother, but she was also devoted to her writing, and her parenting style was more haphazard than was commonly accepted at the time. Jackson did not fit in easily in North Bennington, and the town likely served as the basis for the New England town depicted in “The Lottery.” After she published “The Lottery,” a rumor began that she herself had actually been stoned by children in the town. She was also frequently rumored to be a witch and psychic because of her interest in black magic and witchcraft. According to some biographers, she once claimed that she had caused an acquaintance’s accident by creating a wax sculpture of him with his leg broken.
The macabre subject matter of “The Lottery” caused outrage and controversy when it appeared in the New Yorker in 1948, but many critics now consider it to be Jackson’s most famous work. The story also appeared in the collection The Lottery and Other Stories (1948). Jackson’s six novels include The Road Through the Wall (1948), The Hangsaman (1950), The Bird’s Nest (1954), The Sundial (1958), The Haunting of Hill House (1959), and We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962). She also wrote two memoirs, Life Among the Savages (1953) and Raising Demons (1957). The Haunting of Hill House has been adapted to film twice, first in 1963 and again in 1999. Jackson also published a variety of plays, essays, articles, and children’s books. One of her most famous works for children is The Witchcraft of Salem Village (1956), a history of the Salem witch trials. The story collection Just an Ordinary Day was published posthumously in 1995, when new stories were discovered among Jackson’s belongings and papers. Almost all of Jackson’s work is rooted in horror, hauntings, witchcraft, or psychological unease.
Jackson struggled with both mental and physical illnesses as an adult. She suffered from anxiety attacks and agoraphobia, eventually finding some relief from psychotherapy. She found solace in writing and always claimed that, unlike other writers, she found the writing process pleasurable. She wrote We Have Always Lived in the Castle at the height of her psychological turmoil, and many critics have drawn parallels between the novel and Jackson’s personal life. Jackson died of a heart attack in 1965 while taking a nap. She was only forty-eight.