Thoughts from the ledge on Stephen King’s inspiration Shirley Jackson

Welcome to my weekly series where I pay homage to those unsung heroes of the horror genre. The topic of discussion this week is Shirley Jackson. Best known for her short story, The Lottery and her novel, The Haunting of Hill House, she has influenced prominent writers such as Stephen King, Neil Gaiman and Richard Matheson.

So, get comfortable, grab your favorite beverage and let’s talk!

Ordinary woman, Extraordinary Talent

Shirley Jackson was an ordinary woman with a husband and children. By all accounts, she lived a fairly normal existence in Bennington, Vermont. With most situations in life, if you are inclined to explore beneath the surface, sometimes unsettling issues come to light.

Perhaps Jackson was predisposed to being an author of horror stories. This could have been because in her real life she was a tortured soul. The wife of Stanley Edgar Hyman, an academic and critic she appeared to live the typical 1950s housewife role.

Mother to four children and a dedicated suburbanite throwing weekend cocktail parties attended by other literati such as Ralph Ellison, it was far from domestic bliss. Underneath the white picket fences and the rose gardens, Jackson struggled with her husband’s numerous infidelities and an addiction to amphetamines and barbiturates.

Throw in a predilection for alcohol, and she was headed for the fast track to disaster. During this turbulent time, she created some of her indelible masterpieces such as The Lottery, The Haunting of Hill House, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons. Horror master Stephen King cited The Haunting of Hill House as “one of the important horror novels of the twentieth century.”

Shades of Influence

Jackson’s influence can be seen throughout film, not just works based on her stories. The Hunger Games is a clear descendant of The Lottery. If you think about it, the idea of a house possessing an individual like in The Haunting of Hill House is eerily reminiscent of Jack Torrance being possessed by the entities of the Overlook Hotel in King’s monumental work, The Shining.

Richard Matheson’s terrifying novel, Hell House also about the residual haunting of a mansion left over from traumatic circumstances has undertones of The Haunting of Hill House.  I would like to take a look at several movies that follow Jackson’s horror blue print.

The Haunting
The Haunting 1963 – Courtesy of IMDB

The 1963 film version of The Haunting of Hill House, directed by Robert Wise, written by Nelson Gidding and starring Julie Harris and Claire Bloom is clearly superior to the 1999 remake. For Twin Peaks fans, Dr. Jacoby aka Dr. Amp, Russ Tamblyn also stars in the movie.

With undertones of sexual attraction between Harris and Bloom coupled with the horrifying evil lurking in the house makes for a potent mix. Shot in black and white the effective use of shadows and light also imbues the storytelling with a creepy, chilling effect.

Julie Harris as Nell gives a very believable performance as a young woman on the brink of a breakdown. Weary from her years as a caretaker of her ailing mother and trying to come to grips with her psychic abilities, she leaves you wondering if she truly is unstable or if the house with its lurid and shocking past is to blame.

Ghost Story (1981)
Ghost Story 1981 – Courtesy of Universal Studios

From director John Irvin and screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen based on a book by Peter Straub comes a frightening story about the power of revenge from beyond the grave. This movie stars veteran actors, John Houseman, Fred Astaire, Melvin Douglas and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

Cohen known for writing mostly Stephen King adaptations like, Carrie, IT and The Tommyknockers delivered a decent thriller. Jackson’s imprint is found all over this movie especially with the central theme of the vengeful ghost and a haunting of a group of individuals with troubled pasts.

The Lovely Bones (2009)
The Lovely Bones – Courtesy of DreamWorks, Film4, WingNut Films

This is one of my favorite all time movies. I also adored the book. Directed by Lord of the Rings mastermind, Peter Jackson, Lovely Bones harkens back to his smaller efforts like Heavenly Creatures. This is the tale of murdered teenager Susie Salmon.

Susie finds herself between worlds. She isn’t in heaven or hell, she is in limbo. Her grieving parents played brilliantly by Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz are struggling to cope with the aftermath of her death. Salmon does her best to help her sister Lindsey (Rose McIver) by giving her clues that point to her killer.

Thematically, this aligns very nicely with Jackson’s short story, The Missing Girl and her novel Hangsaman. In 1946, a Bennington College student Paula Jean Welden disappeared, never to be seen again. Jackson adeptly deals with hauntings derived from tragic circumstances such as unexpected deaths.

The Conjuring (2013)
The Conjuring – Courtesy of New Line Cinema, Safran Company, The, Evergreen Media Group

In my opinion, James Wan’s The Conjuring is one of the best supernatural thrillers out there.  At the heart of this horrific story is a Satan worshiping witch who wants to kill anyone that inhabits her land.

It resonates perfectly with Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. Deaths, chaos and possession are hallmarks of both efforts. Also, each of these tales have paranormal investigations coinciding with the hauntings to try and solve what is going on. Battle royals with the spiritual forces are central to the plots of each movie.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle (2017)
We Have Always Lived in the Castle – Courtesy of Film Music Art

Based on Shirley Jackson’s novel of the same name, this is an interesting story about a family that has experienced a tragedy. When a cousin swoops in to steal the family fortune, he gets more than he bargained for in the form of a dark secret.

Taissa Farmiga, Sebastian Stan, Alexandra Daddario and Crispin Glover comprise the cast. Presently, there is no release date.

Epitaph

Shirley Jackson departed this mortal coil in 1965 at the age of forty-eight after suffering heart failure. I often wonder had she lived what works of art would she have written? Could she have transitioned into the realm of screenwriting? Would she have collaborated with Stephen King?

Fortunately, her legacy lives on in every high school English class that learns about The Lottery and in most films, that deal with hauntings or supernatural events.

Have you read any of Shirley Jackson’s work? If so, what have you read? Did you see The Haunting of Hill House or any of the other films that correlate with her writing? Feel free to let us know your thoughts in the comment section below. We want to hear from you!