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Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life

3.82  ·  Rating details ·  5,211 ratings  ·  528 reviews
This historically engaging and relevant biography establishes Shirley Jackson as a towering figure in American literature and revives the life and work of a neglected master.

Still known to millions primarily as the author of the The Lottery, Shirley Jackson (1916-1965) has been curiously absent from the mainstream American literary canon. A genius of literary suspense and
Hardcover, 608 pages
Published September 27th 2016 by Liveright
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Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin is a 2016 Liveright publication.

I wonder, when hearing the name Shirley Jackson, which book pops into your mind? ‘The Lottery’ or ‘We Have Always Lived in a Castle’ or ‘The Haunting of Hill House’?

I’d bet most people associate Jackson with Hill House, which is understandable. But, for me, ‘The Lottery’ is the first thing that pops into my mind. Mainly, this is because of a personal experience, that even after all these years, still sticks
“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.”
― Shirley Jackson
Aug 09, 2016 rated it really liked it
This biography of Shirley Jackson is a comprehensive exploration of a fascinating woman, who was full of contradictions. Her children's perception of her as a happy mother is challenged by her use of drugs. She appears to have suffered from her husband's infidelities while at the same time maintaining a seemingly "happy" marriage. All this while writing some of the best books of her time. Her story "The Lottery" is a sharp look at small town life (in this case, a village) that is still taught in ...more
Frank Errington
Oct 01, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Review copy

Admittedly, I don't read a lot of biographies. Not my thing. Nothing against them, I just prefer to spend my time reading fiction. That being said, when I saw there was going to be a Shirley Jackson bio, I decided to get out of my comfort zone just a bit.

Shirley Jackson is perhaps most remembered for her short story, THE LOTTERY, and her novel, THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE, but there is so much more to her short life.

The bio covers her childhood, college years (she wasn't a very good st
tortoise dreams
Oct 21, 2016 rated it liked it
A biography of the too often overlooked American writer Shirley Jackson (1916-65), author of "The Lottery," The Haunting of Hill House, and other tales of a damaged psyche.

Nonfiction Review: Despite the recent renewal of her reputation (all her major work seems to be in print) Shirley Jackson is one of the most underrated authors of the 20th Century, so I much anticipated this new biography by Ruth Franklin. Unfortunately, I was disappointed and this is not the definitive volume I hoped for. To
Book Riot Community
I technically have not finished reading this one, despite starting in August, but that’s because it is so so so so good that I am savoring every word. A loving tribute to my favorite author. One million thumbs up; all the stars.

–Annika Barranti Klein

from The Best Books We Read In November 2016:
Oct 04, 2016 rated it it was amazing
7/6/18: reread it this week and it’s even better than I’d remembered. Hats off to Ruth Franklin for a marvelous job of synthesizing all the facts of Jackson’s life into such a rich narrative.

A Rather Haunted Life is an excellent, highly readable biography of my favorite author, Shirley Jackson. It seems to have some real buzz, which is fabulous, as all modern day buzz for Jackson related books = long overdue. While I loved the 1988 biography Private Demons by Judy Oppenheimer, here Ruth Franklin
May 07, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

I don’t read many biographies of writers, but when I do, I’m interested in the time, place, and people that influenced who they were and how that affected their writing. In Shirley Jackson’s case, the people were her mother and her husband, two strong individuals who demanded her conformity. If she partially gave into their demands—nothing she did was good enough for her mother, who represented conventional thinking and so-called Society—this biography shows how all of Jackson’s writings, inc
Mar 01, 2017 rated it it was ok
A disappointing book. Author Ruth Franklin begins with the premise that talented and accomplished author Shirley Jackson was a highly unhappy individual, and given the fact that she developed addictions to liquor, cigarettes, "diet" pills and even chocolate, then died at age 48 of heart failure in 1965, grossly overweight, that's not a difficult case to assert. It is, however, a tougher case to prove. Shirley Jackson succeeded at almost everything to which she put her mind, be it mystery short s ...more
Apr 16, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: writers, biography
This book was on so many “Best” lists of 2016 that I had to take notice. I relish a big thick well researched biography, and I was not disappointed.

Shirley grew up in a growing and wealthy suburb of San Francisco, an area which her maternal forbears helped develop and had profited from. Her father was hardworking and upwardly mobile rising to a CEO status that took the family to Rochester NY in Shirley’s late teens. Unfortunately for Shirley, she was not born the petite debutante that flourishes
Sep 22, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I have long been a fan of Shirley Jackson’s writing and was intrigued to read her latest biography. To my shame, this has been on my TBR list for ever and I am so glad that I finally managed to get to it. I have read a previous biography of Jackson – “Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson,” by Judy Oppenheimer and it seems odd that there was no other attempt to look at her life, and work, since that volume, in the late 1980’s. Thankfully, both the biographies I have read have been excellen ...more
Beth Bonini
Throughout her writing career, Shirley Jackson's output tended to take seemingly quite disparate forms: either domestic comedy, as exemplified by Life Among the Savages and the many short pieces she wrote for women's magazines during the late 1940s and 1950s, or the psychologically probing 'horror' stories responsible for her enduring literary fame. During her lifetime, many reviewers (and presumably readers) were apparently confused by her ability to switch between these genres; what biographer ...more
Apr 25, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: biography
A smoothly written tour through the complex emotional life--and busy outer life--of Shirley Jackson, a particular favorite of mine. Franklin approaches Jackson evenhandedly, with just the little bit of partisanship that it's best for a biographer to have for their subject, and she selects her incidents well. The most dreadful sign in a biography is a lengthy section describing the person's childhood or, worse, the childhood of their great-grandparents, but Franklin handles both Jackson's family ...more
Jul 13, 2020 rated it really liked it

'Eleanor awakens in the night to hear a voice babbling in the next room and clutches at the hand of Theodora, sleeping beside her. The voice turns into the cry of a child, sobbing, “Please don’t hurt me. Please let me go home.” She screams; the lights go on, and she sees that Theodora is not next to her after all, but in bed across the room. “God God,” Eleanor says, “whose hand was I holding?”

If this, as Jackson wrote in her notes on one of the drafts, is the “key line” of the novel, what do
Jun 02, 2021 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
This book was too slow paced and boring. I wanted to know so much more about Shirley Jackson. She was such a unique person and a brilliant writer. The author just didn’t do it for me. She went on and on about her husband Stanley. She also had a lot to say about various family members of Shirley. I didn’t care for all that extra gibberish and I found it painfully dull.
Susan Albert
My experience of Shirley Jackson began with her two memoirs, Life Among the Savages (1952) and Raising Demons (1957), both genuinely funny, clever, and endearing. I discovered them when I was a young mom with small children, just learning how to write and wanting a writing career. Especially in those books, Jackson seemed like a perfect--and perfectly inspiring--model. I met the "other" Jackson--the Jackson of "The Lottery," The Haunting of Hill House, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle--muc ...more
Nov 26, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
I really enjoyed listening to the audiobook of this biography. It is organized somewhat chronologically, with each chapter dealing with a work of Jackson's and a general theme in her life. There are lots of spoilers for her works, but that didn't bother me even though I've read nothing by Jackson. This an important work discussing women torn between their identities as workers and mothers because of societal expectations and judgements. ...more
Aug 25, 2016 rated it it was ok
Too many tangents.
reflections: When I was a teenager, Shirley Jackson was a huge part of my literary upbringing. Back then, I read everything about her as well as by her. So I was eager to read her biography.

The author of Jackson's newest biography gives a too-long chapter: "Foundations" about Jackson's ancestors. The chapter explains why she wrote spooky stories about haunted houses. Her maternal ancestors were architects of mansions in California and fans of the supernatural such as the Ouija
Nov 12, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: biography
Shirley Jackson is one of my personal top five favorite writers. Some books come to us in a moment of time that pack such a powerful punch or so sharply define something that puts us in touch with our inner core that they are magical, timeless and revered. Shirley Jackson came to me when I was in grade 7...the middle of middle school. I can't remember if I read 'We Have Always Lived in the Castle' or 'The Haunting of Hill House' first. I can actually see my 12 year old self, lying across my bed ...more
No rating. The book is decent but it's filled with tangents and more about her husband's work/ onus, IMHO than I have interest to know. Also the core of Shirley's personality and papers is so off-putting to me that I don't find much more of her "depth" or why she is always so defensive- while reading such lengths of her whines and dissatisfaction. She also lead such a privileged life in a time when most were literally starving that I find her blindness to any of her luckier placement realization ...more
Jan 23, 2017 marked it as abandoned
Okay, on page 114 out of 500 pages of text (not counting the notes), and I'm abandoning this, at least for now. I recently really enjoyed Jackson's short novels, We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House, and of course I read The Lottery when I was in high school, and this biography of the author seemed intriguing. I was interested in the fact that she was famous for her humorous magazine stories about family life, which were published in women's magazines in the 50's (an ...more
Mar 20, 2017 rated it really liked it

I’m about to devote the majority of this review of a 600+ page book to a single chapter, which describes public reaction to the publication in The New Yorker of Jackson’s short story “The Lottery.” I can’t help it, because I was equal parts stunned and amused by what seemed to be only two categories of responses: a) What in tarnation does this story mean? And b) Is it fact, or fiction? The latter was explained in part by Franklin—at the time, The New Yorker did not label stories as fiction or no
Richard Moss
Nov 26, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2018
I only came to Shirley Jackson two years ago when I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle. It instantly became one of my favourite reads, and it probably has the best opening paragraph ever written.

But what mind could produce a work so moving and affecting, and yet also strange and disturbing? Many of the answers are contained in this superlative biography of the all-too short life of Shirley Jackson.

Ruth Franklin has unearthed some tremendous detail about Jackson's childhood and marriage, as
Feb 14, 2017 rated it liked it
This biography wavers between 2 1/2 stars and 3 stars for me but I'll be generous because I really liked the parts about Shirley Jackson. The book begins with her early life and later each chapter focuses on the period of her life during which she is writing one of her novels or stories. I really enjoyed reading about her writing process. Shirley Jackson is mostly known as being a horror writer but she also wrote humorous non-fiction stories about her family life and being a housewife in the 195 ...more
V. Briceland
Oct 06, 2016 rated it it was amazing
What elevates Ruth Franklin's examination of Shirley Jackson over the only previous full-length biography written about the author is Franklin's insightful criticism of Jackson's output. At the height of her career, Jackson's dual fame as both the deft craftswoman of eerie tales of human evil, as well as the droll raconteur of domestic comedy, managed to baffle many reviewers. Franklin, however, makes a convincing case for a more unified appreciation to Jackson's novels, memoirs, and abundant sh ...more
Feb 18, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I learned a lot about Shirley Jackson, so I'm pretty pleased. ...more
Jan 29, 2021 rated it really liked it
This is a fantastic biography, I knew very little about Jackson before I picked it up and Franklin does an amazing job of interweaving her work, her home life, and the different roles she had to play. Honestly, Jackson deserved better.

I also loved the (albeit it, brief) deeper look Franklin gave some of Jackson's literature. I'm a huge fan of Stephen King but have read only a little Jackson. Franklin's analysis made me realize how and why King shows his appreciation of Jackson's work through his
May 25, 2017 rated it really liked it
You don't read a biography of someone like Shirley Jackson because she had a particularly exciting life. She didn't cure cancer or storm the beaches of Normandy. You read this type of biography to illuminate the artist's work. Does this book do that? I'm happy to report, yes!

Shirley Jackson is one of my very favorites. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is probably my very favorite book. So she is very near and dear to my heart, though before reading this biography, I didn't know a whole lot abo
Dec 03, 2016 rated it did not like it
It's possible that if I hadn't previously read Judy Oppenheimer's excellent biography, Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson I might have liked this book, but I doubt it. At nearly twice the length of the Oppenheimer book, one would have hoped for even more insight into Jackson, her life and her writings. Unfortunately the extra pages are devoted to what is essentially an unnecessarily extensive co-biography of Stanley Hyman, Jackson's husband, and various extended digressions on subjects ...more
Diana M. Rodriguez
Mar 13, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
A fascinating biography of an incredibly talented writer. Shirley Jackson's life was not usual for her time. She was a prolific writer at a time when women were still described as housewives. She worked full time as a writer, all the while raising a rambunctious brood of children. Her husband sounds unbearable, overbearing, controlling, philandering, and not helpful raising the children or helping around the house. Poor Shirley.

I love the story of when she went to the hospital to give birth to
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