After its publication in the New Yorker in 1948, Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery provoked a record number of readers to write letters, many proclaiming their revulsion for the story’s premise: a village’s annual stoning rite.
A controversial but much admired master of the mid-20th-century horror genre, Jackson was 48 when she died of heart failure in 1965. In recent years, Penguin has reissued her novels and the Library of America has released a volume of her works, edited by Joyce Carol Oates.
Now comes Shirley, a welcome Jackson tribute by Susan Scarf Merrell. This homage psycho-thriller, starring the illustrious Jackson, paints a partly true, partly fictitious portrait of a writer about whom many 21st-century fans know little.
Merrell brilliantly weaves events from Jackson’s life into a hypnotic storyline that will please Jackson fans as well as anyone in search of a solidly written literary thriller. And it’s far from derivative. Its merit lies in its inventiveness even as it draws inspiration from Jackson’s own stories. Merrell strews the landscape of Shirley with nods to Jackson’s trademark plot devices, including haunted houses, witchcraft and closed-rank New Englanders.
In the mid-1940s, Jackson and her husband, literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, set up house in Bennington, Vermont, where they raised their four children. Fast forward to 1964. Merrell adds the fictional Rose Nemser to the family dynamic. The teenage, pregnant Rose and her husband, Fred, move in with the Hymans. Fred has been hired to help Stanley with his teaching load at the local college. Rose, around whom most of this dazzling yet dark tale spins, spends her days with Shirley, who splits her time between writing stories and taking care of her family.
Jackson fans will recognize Rose. She’s like so many of the female characters about whom Jackson wrote. Insecure, untested and emotionally warped by a fractious childhood, Rose, like Eleanor in The Haunting of Hill House, just wants to fit in. Jackson becomes her obsession.
One of the best things about Shirley is that you don’t have to be familiar with Jackson’s stories to enjoy it. But old fans and the newly curious will want to reach for The Lottery and revel in its timeless gothic perfection.