There’s a malicious presence in the Blackwood estate, the imposing structure on the outskirts of town inhabited by the only surviving members of a reclusive aristocratic family. It might be wheelchair-bound Uncle Julian, who constantly relives the day most of his family dropped dead of arsenic poisoning. It might be Constance, who hasn’t left the estate in six years and is fanatically devoted to the rules of etiquette. It might even be Merricat, the younger sister, who surrounds the estate with wards and totems to keep the rest of the world at bay. Jackson is best-known today for “The Lottery,” her horrifying story of small-town insularity gone wrong, but of all her notoriously creepy works this one deserves the most attention. Its suspense works in two directions: the reader discovers unsettling details about the past even as the narrative creeps toward a chilling climax, leaving the present moment doubly uncertain and doubly tense. The question of who sprinkled arsenic in the sugar bowl is pretty easily answered, but don’t be fooled—that apparent mystery is just a diversionary tactic to let more frightening revelations approach unnoticed. Even if horror isn’t your genre of choice, as Halloween approaches, Shirley Jackson’s novels are worth a try. – Andrew R. ’17
No one who’s read Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” is likely to forget it anytime soon: even sixty-five years after its explosive debut, the narrative of sinister small-town ritualism retains an impressive staying power that makes it as jarring to modern readers as it was to its original audiences. Shirley Jackson draws on the same arsenal of subtly suspenseful plot devices in her 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House, in which the scarred and unstable Eleanor Vance joins a research party to live in a crumbling Victorian mansion for the summer. Part Edgar Allen Poe and part Henry James, this psychological ghost story isn’t quite a horror novel, at least not in the Stephen King sense; its terror, as in “The Lottery,” is so understated that the full force of the book’s scariest scenes isn’t likely to manifest itself until days after you’ve read them. (From what I’ve heard, Jackson’s last novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, ramps up this creepiness to an even more intense and chilling pitch.) For a haunted-house story, this novel is very strong, and rates only one notch below “The Lottery” in its quality and spine-tingling effect.