Shirley Jackson (1916–65) was a complicated woman—a hardworking faculty wife and mother of four and a productive writer both energized and enervated by a macabre sensibility that doubtless worsened the poor health that led to a fatal heart attack in her 49th year.
A college graduate, and the spouse of prominent academic Stanley Edgar Hyman, Jackson had profitably immersed herself in what Poe called the literature of the grotesque and arabesque—and seems to have quite enjoyed describing herself as an accredited and devoted practitioner of the dark arts.
And, as if H.P. Lovecraft had had a little of Erma Bombeck or Carl Hiaasen in him (a not unpleasing thought), she also produced charmingly funny accounts (in Raising Demons and Life Among the Savages) of the joys and frustrations of tending to a large, fractious family.
This rigorously selective yet perfectly satisfying gathering of Jackson’s best work begins with the complete contents of her seminal 1947 collection The Lottery. Almost every reader conversant with modern fiction surely knows its sui generis title story: a virtually reportorial, resolutely unemotional account of an annual ritual—presumably a sacrifice of sorts—observed in a remote yet seemingly ordinary New England village. Revealing any further details would be a crime punishable by…well, just read the story.
Other well-mannered bloodcurdlers include “The Daemon Lover,” which introduces the recurring character of James Harris (not a character in this story, as it happens), who’s either an unprincipled Lothario fond of charming lonely women, then blithely breaking their hearts, or an authentic visitor from Hell, bursting with romantic-erotic menace (he’d scare the bejesus out of today’s cute vampire teenagers).
Also, “The Witch,” about a voluble four-year-old boy’s encounter in a train car with a grandfatherly sadist; and, among 21 late-career “Other Stories and Sketches,” an anecdote in which Death, having assumed a pleasing shape, pays an unexpected visit to a lonely woman (“The Rock”); a story which gives a “fortunate” niece “The Little House” owned by her late aunt (who has vacated it, but may still “possess” it); and a memorable black-comic distillation of the ambiguities of good and evil as incarnated by a respectable suburban couple (“One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts”).
Also included are Jackson’s superb 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House, wherein a member of a ghost-hunting team discovers that the eponymous mansion has been awaiting her arrival; and the final completed novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), the story of an insular family trapped in a nightmare that provides both sanctuary and raison d’être for the book’s deeply unconventional, quite possibly insane young narrator.
Parents and children, spouses and relatives, neighbors whose “normality” masks their disturbing complexities, relationships that promise then withdraw perfect happiness—the stuff of everyday life, rendered in plain colloquial prose whose homely accents wring puzzlement, fear and incipient madness from the simplest quotidian experiences. Here was Shirley Jackson’s world, and her unpretentious artistry made of it a fearful yet irresistible place to visit. Witchcraft indeed.