By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Shirley Jackson (1916-65) wrote six novels and around two hundred short stories during her brief career. Probably best-known for her novel The Haunting of Hill House and her oft-anthologised short story ‘The Lottery’, Jackson was a writer with a considerable range, whose work often engages with the unsettling, the macabre, and the darkly comical.
Below, we’ve focused exclusively on shorter works written by Shirley Jackson, published across a number of short-story collections. If these whet your appetite for more, we strongly recommend starting with The Lottery and Other Stories, which contains her most famous story, as well as several others which feature on this list.
1. ‘The Daemon Lover’.
Many of Shirley Jackson’s stories are about the treatment of women in society, and perhaps her best-known variation on this theme is ‘The Daemon Lover’, published in the Woman’s Home Companion in 1949.
The protagonist is a thirtysomething woman who is jilted on the day of her wedding. The story cleverly uses the motif of the locked door to suggest the ways in which unmarried women are ‘shut out’ from society.
This short tale was first published in the women’s magazine Mademoiselle in 1948. The story is about a young boy who, upon starting kindergarten, picks up bad habits which he attributes to the presence of Charles, a boy in his class.
But who is Charles? And how did Laurie, the young boy, come to ‘fall in’ with him? Is there more to his accounts of Charles than meet the eye?
3. ‘The Possibility of Evil’.
Published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1965, this story has a title which might be used to describe many of Jackson’s stories. In this case, specifically, it is the everyday cruelty of an unmarried old lady who appears harmless, but spends her days posting anonymous letters to her neighbours, informing them of the gossip being spoken about them.
But one day, when she drops one of the letters she is on her way to deliver, someone else discovers it …
4. ‘Pillar of Salt’.
The title of this story alludes to the Old Testament destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, but in Jackson’s story, Lot’s wife – turned into a pillar of salt in the biblical story for daring to look back at God’s destruction of the city – is a modern American woman, and Sodom has become New York.
After a series of strange and unnerving events – including believing she is trapped inside an apartment that’s on fire – the female protagonist comes to view New York very differently. And that’s before body parts start to wash up on the beach …
5. ‘The Summer People’.
Published in 1950, here is a short story that could rival ‘The Lottery’ in its capacity to give readers at least one or two sleepless nights.
The protagonists of this story are the Allisons, a New York couple in late middle age who spend their summers at a lake house in the country, where they rely on the locals for everything. But when they decide to outstay their welcome in the community – a community which they treat with naked contempt – things take an unsettling turn …
6. ‘The Witch’.
The plot of this story, a somewhat lighter but no less sinister affair, is very straightforward and the whole tale runs to only a few pages. It tells of how a mother travels on the train with her young son and baby daughter, and how a strange man strikes up a conversation with her son and tells him a macabre story.
Titles can be mischievous things, and by titling her short story ‘The Witch’, Shirley Jackson invites us to wonder: who really is the witch in this story? Was she external to the train, the woman whom Johnny saw, and chased off? Was she merely the stuff of his overactive imagination? Or was the witch the mysterious man who appeared shortly after Johnny claimed to have encountered the witch outside?
The power of this story resides in its playful ambiguity.
7. ‘Like Mother Used to Make’.
Many of Shirley Jackson’s best stories are about characters feeling ill at ease, but in this story she brings that feeling inside the home. What if you are made to feel ‘not at home’, within your own home?
When David invites his slovenly neighbour Marcia round for dinner, and she invites her co-worker into David’s home without asking first, David discovers just what that feels like …
8. ‘The Tooth’.
Clara Spencer, an American housewife, has been suffering with agonising toothache, so she is put on a bus to the dentist. But this will turn out to be far from a routine medical procedure as things take a strange turn.
Drugs, and intense pain, can do weird things to our minds, and Jackson brilliantly conveys the uncanny depths of psychological horror in this tale.
9. ‘Louisa, Please Come Home’.
Published in the Ladies’ Home Journal in 1960, this story is believed to have been inspired by the seven people who disappeared in the woods around Bennington, Vermont between 1945 and 1950, near where Shirley Jackson lived.
A nineteen-year-old woman, Louisa Tether, leaves home and adopts a new name, Lois Taylor. But in shedding her past identity, she brings about a greater change, and when she becomes homesick and decides to return home she will find it harder than she had anticipated.
10. ‘The Lottery’.
Let’s conclude our pick of the best Shirley Jackson short stories with her most famous story of all: ‘The Lottery’, which was first published in the New Yorker in 1948. Upon its publication, this story – about an American village community who ritually select one of their members to be sacrificed each June in the belief that this will secure favourable crops – inspired a slew of letters from irate and disgusted readers (with several of them cancelling their subscriptions to the magazine).
It is not hard to see why this has become not only Jackson’s best-known story, but one of the most famous and talked-about stories of the twentieth century. The narrative can be interpreted as an allegory for the Second World War, for totalitarianism, for extreme religious belief and ritual, the dangers of groupthink, or any number of other things.
We have discussed this story in more detail here.