Forgotten authors No.19: Shirley Jackson

Sunday 11 January 2009 01:00

If her name rings a bell, it might be because Shirley Jackson is finally receiving the critical attention she has so long deserved.

Born in San Francisco in 1916, Jackson created a sensation by publishing a story in The New Yorker that generated a phenomenal amount of heated correspondence. Her brief tale "The Lottery" touched a nerve and demanded an explanation where none had been provided. It concerned a rural town in which a lottery takes place, the nature of which is best left undescribed for the sake of new readers. Having touched off a public furore, she nevertheless found an audience drawn to her style of calm, precise emotional detachment.

Jackson tapped into the concerns of middle class America in the 1950s. Her novel Lizzie dealt with a woman suffering from multiple-personality disorder. The Haunting of Hill House, a novel regarded by many as one of the most powerful psychological ghost stories ever written and later made into a cult film, also explores female insecurities in greater depth than most novels of the period.

"No live organism," Jackson writes, "can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality." Thus the delicate Eleanor faces loneliness, madness, depression and imprisonment with a sense of inner stillness that turns her into a heroine.

Jackson's best book was her last. We Have Always Lived in the Castle was chosen by Time magazine as one of the 10 best novels of 1962. In it, two sisters and an ancient uncle huddle in psychotic solitude, and the girls create a set of rules for survival that make the hero of Iain Banks's The Wasp Factory seem entirely normal.

I've lost count of how many times this heartbreaking book has been announced as a film, but no one has yet managed to recreate its twisted world. It is perhaps the ultimate Gothic novel, and is finally being marketed as such instead of being allowed to languish in obscurity.

Some 30 years after Jackson's early death at the age of 48, a box of previously unseen stories was found in a barn behind her house; they were published in the US to great acclaim.

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