A Definitive Ranking of Shirley Jackson’s Novels

When Shirley Jackson was in labor with her third child, the admitting clerk at the hospital asked for her occupation.  Jackson answered, “Writer,” but the clerk said, “I’ll just put down housewife.”  That moment is basically a snapshot of her life – from her unhappy childhood with a mother who made no secret of wishing she had a pretty daughter to her marriage to an unfaithful husband to the literary critics who never took her seriously (wishing she would stay in her lane & stick to writing humorous articles in ladies’ magazines).  Jackson was constantly told to be something other than herself. 

Shirley Jackson (1916-1965) lived during a time when women had few options – housewife, secretary, nurse, teacher, or perhaps waitress.  She was not the only woman to chafe at these restraints & seek solace in pills, in fact far from it, but she did have an outlet that most women of that era did not – her work as an author. Between 1948 and her early death (of heart failure while she slept), Jackson published 6 novels, 4 short story collections, 2 memoirs, & 4 children’s books.

I arrived late to the Shirley Jackson party.  In 2016, I read an online excerpt from We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Jackson’s final novel (widely considered to be her masterpiece), & it was basically love at first sight for me.  I ran out, bought the book, & devoured it in one sitting.  Later that year, when I unexpectedly found myself with some extra money, I bought copies of her other novels.

In case you don’t have time to read all of her novels yourself (which is a shame, because they are very good), I’m here to give you a quick rundown of each one.  So without further ado, here are all of Shirley Jackson’s novels, ranked from awesome to awesomer.

#6 – The Road Through the Wall

book cover, shirley jackson, the road through the wallPublished in 1948, Jackson’s first novel is about a middle class neighborhood on Pepper Street. Pepper Street is its own little microcosm of social hierarchy; every character is preoccupied with their status on the street & yearns to climb higher than their neighbors. And the Desmond family, safely at the top of the Pepper Street echelon? They hope to someday move beyond the wall at the end of the street to where the exclusively rich build their houses on the other side. But one day when a developer decides to tear down the wall, it shakes the cozy security of the Pepper Street residents down to the very core, paving the way for a tragedy no one saw coming.

The Road Through the Wall was Jackson’s first novel, & you can easily find the foundation of many of the themes of her later work, such as how homes reflect the character of their inhabitants, the complexity of group dynamics, & the intricacies of female relationships. There are also several moments that feel heart-breakingly autobiographical, like an encounter between young teenager Harriet & an elderly neighbor who casually tells her, “You’re lucky. you won’t ever be pretty.”

Harriet knew already that this would keep her heartsick for months, perhaps for the rest of her life, and she said thickly, “I’m losing weight right now.”

“It isn’t that you’re so fat,” Miss Tyler said critically. “You just don’t have the air of a pretty woman. All your life, for instance, you’ll walk like you’re fat, whether you are or not.”

This is what Jackson does best: capture those little moments, the thousands of instances in a person’s life that seem like nothing from the outside but that end up shaping them forever.  She puts these moments under a magnifying glass for all to see, & more often than not, finds humanity’s ugliness.  This explains why her books rarely received the critical success they deserved; she was not in the business of writing likable characters who find happy endings. She wrote the world as she saw it, without a pair of rose-colored glasses in sight.

I’ve ranked this book at #6 because as she continued to write, Jackson’s style grew & solidified.  The Road Through the Wall is a superbly written book that expertly paces & balances the stories of dozens of characters, but for Jackson, her best was yet to come.

And if you’ve read this one, hit me up, because I’m dying to talk about THAT ENDING.

#5 – The Sundial

book cover, the sundial by shirley jacksonLionel Halloran has died under mysterious circumstances. As the rest of the wealthy Halloran family gathers for his funeral in the sprawling ancestral mansion, Aunt Fanny is visited by the ghost of the family patriarch – Lionel’s grandfather, the first Mr. Halloran. The ghost warns her that the world will soon end, but he will protect all those who stay inside the mansion. As the days count down to the impending apocalypse, the Hallorans make preparations, storing goods & isolating themselves from the rest of society. But with tensions rising, each member of the family must decide: do they really want to survive to start a new world if it means they’ll be stuck with each other?

Published in 1958, The Sundial is Jackson’s 4th novel.  Central to the story is another of Jackson’s distinctive themes: relationships between characters that feature an almost complete lack of love and intimacy.  This theme was abundant in The Road Through the Wall, but it is more notable in The Sundial particularly because the main characters are family.  The Hallorans basically care nothing for each other beyond maintaining the dignity of the family name, but this does provide ample opportunities for showing off Jackson’s signature dry humor.

Young Mrs. Halloran, looking after her mother-in-law, said without hope, “Maybe she will drop dead on the doorstep.  Fancy, dear, would you like to see Granny drop dead on the doorstep?”

“Yes, mother,” Fancy pulled at the long skirt of the black dress her grandmother had put her in.

I’ve ranked The Sundial at #5 because, like The Road Through the Wall, it features an large ensemble cast rather than a few main characters.  The latter is really just personal preference of mine, & hey, I have to rank these incredible novels somehow.

#4 – Hangsaman

book cover, hangsaman by shirley jacksonInspired by the real-life disappearance of a Bennington College sophomore in 1946, Hangsaman centers on 17 year-old Natalie Waite as she leaves her unhappy, pressure-filled family life behind to attend college. Once there, however, she develops a crush on one of the professors & slowly loses her grip on reality.

Published in 1951, Hangsaman is Jackson’s 2nd novel.  Here she paints a vivid picture of girl who is utterly lost.  Her family members are basically strangers living under the same roof.  Away at an all-girls college, she is shy & awkward; though she longs to fit in, her cliquey schoolmates take no notice of her.  With no anchor anywhere in the world, who can blame Natalie when she starts to drift away?

Once again, Jackson brings out her magnifying glass to shine a light on life’s tiny, torturous moments, bringing them forward with an acute honesty that only a fellow outcast would be able to do.  But perhaps the book’s best part occurs early, when in a moment of drunken honesty, Natalie’s mother decides to explain to her the truth about married life:

“First they tell you lies,” said Mrs. Waite, “and they make you believe them. Then they give you a little of what they promised, just a little, enough to keep you thinking you’ve got your hands on it. Then you find out that you’re tricked, just like everyone else, just like everyone, and instead of being different and powerful and giving the orders, you’ve been tricked just like everyone else and then you begin to know what happens to everyone and how they all get tricked.”

This is such a strange, fascinating novel; though you finally have a main character to guide you through the story, Jackson writes in such a way that you feel just as lost as Natalie, & as the story progresses, it’s almost impossible to tell what’s real & what’s not.  Amazing book.

#3 – The Bird’s Nest

book cover, the bird's nest by shirley jacksonElizabeth Richmond leads a boring life.  During the day, the 23 year-old toils quietly at her dull desk job before returning to the home she shares with her overbearing Aunt Morgan.  She suffers from migraines & blackouts, but they’re not too much trouble – until gradually they are.  Slowly Elizabeth comes apart at the seams, giving way to four distinct personalities – at least one of whom remembers the long-ago tragedy which caused the cracks in Elizabeth’s psyche in the first place.

Published in 1954, The Bird’s Nest is Jackson’s 3rd novel.  Like Natalie Waite, Elizabeth is an isolated young woman, broken by personal calamity, & drifting aimlessly.  But Elizabeth is never truly alone, & Jackson deftly pens the emergence of her multiple personalities (Lizzie, Beth, Betsy, & Bess) in a way that makes it almost impossible to put this book down – which was not a quality I felt in the earlier books on this list.

It’s perfectly fine to put down The Sundial for the night; you can rest well knowing the Hallorans will still be hiding in their mansion come morning. But there is a real sense of urgency in The Bird’s Nest. The battle over Elizabeth Richmond is thrilling & fraught with peril, & it’s all depicted with Jackson’s characteristic insight & wit:

For a moment, staring, Betsy wanted frantically to rip herself apart, and give half to Lizzie and never be troubled again, saying take this, and take this and take this, and you can have this, and now get out of my sight, get away from my body, get away and leave me alone. Lizzie could have the useless parts, the breasts and the thighs and the parts she took such pleasure in letting give her pain; Lizzie could have the back so she would always have a backache, and the stomach so she would always be able to have cramps; give Elizabeth all the country of the inside, and let her go away, and leave Betsy in possession of her own.

Because of this, I’ve ranked The Bird’s Nest at #3.  I adore this book, but the final two on this list were always destined to be at the top.

#2 – The Haunting of Hill House

book cover, the haunting of hill house by shirley jacksonThe researcher Dr. Montague has recruited three people to help him in his quest to find proof of psychic phenomenon.  One of them is Eleanor Vance, a shy, repressed 32 year-old with mommy issues. As the group gathers at Hill House, a sinister structure with a dark past, Eleanor feels a sense of foreboding. Will they find what they’re looking for, or does Hill House have its own plans?

Published in 1959, The Haunting of Hill House is Jackson’s 5th novel & my absolute favorite scary story.  Hands down, not even close.  Though it centers on a haunted house rather than the suburban terrors of everyday life, the subject matter is not as big a departure from Jackson’s typical material as it might initially seem.

We still have our fragile heroine, our nuanced interpersonal relationships, our themes of architecture as character.  But while mothers (and the power they wield over their children, for good or, equally, for harm) have been important to all Jackson’s stories, they are a pivotal theme in The Haunting of Hill House.  Jackson’s rocky relationship with her own mother colors her work still, even in her depiction of Hill House:

“It’s all so motherly,” Luke said. “Everything so soft. Everything so padded. Great embracing chairs and sofas which turn out to be hard and unwelcome when you sit down, and reject you at once…”

This book is claustrophobic, disorienting, & so, so good.  It’s the haunted house genre done right: terrifying & suspenseful with no need to resort to gore for cheap scares.  This is Jackson at her 2nd best, & it’s a novel that you absolutely must read.

#1 – We Have Always Lived in the Castle

book cover, we have always lived in the castle by shirley jacksonAll that remains of the Blackwood family is 18 year-old Merricat, her agoraphobic older sister Constance, & addled old Uncle Julian.  The three of them live alone in the Blackwood mansion, which looks down on a resentful village.  Merricat is quite happy with the arrangement, until a man claiming to be their cousin Charles comes visiting, secretly hoping to uncover the hidden family fortune.  And if there’s one thing you simply must not do, it’s make Merricat unhappy.

Published in 1962, We Have Always Lived in the Castle is Jackson’s 6th & final novel.  Perhaps the most noticeable aspect of this book is the main character, Merricat. Unlike her predecessors Natalie, Elizabeth, & Eleanor, Merricat is an assertive, feral tomboy who remakes the world around her as she sees fit.  She recites chants & casts spells to protect the Blackwood property from outsiders & wishes for a life on the moon, where once & for all, she could be rid of all the caustic people of earth:

“I was pretending that I did not speak their language; on the moon we spoke a soft, liquid tongue, and sang in the starlight, looking down on the dead dried world.”

Merricat is easily Jackson’s most compelling character.  Even as she frightens you, you can’t help but root for her, cheering in the end when she gets everything she ever wanted.  And yet, there’s a burning desire for more information – just one more chapter – because you know that Merricat’s happiness cannot possibly continue, can it?  Against all odds, could she find a way to stay on the moon?  After finishing this book, I thought about this inevitability for weeks afterwards.  I want to know – how did it REALLY end?

And it’s because of this that I ranked We Have Always Lived in the Castle as the best of Shirley Jackson’s novels.  The ending of The Haunting of Hill House is perfect, but it’s a closed ending.  I know how things turned out for Eleanor, but I will never stop wondering about Merricat.

How would you rank Shirley Jackson’s novels?

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