The New Yorker received the most protest letters in its entire history when it published “The Lottery”, a controversial 1948 short story by Shirley Jackson which culminates with a woman being stoned to death. Needless to say, it was shocking for its time, but the negative backlash didn’t deter the author. Jackson still went on to become a best-seller whose worked spanned a variety of genres and influenced the likes of Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates, among others.
Ahead of his class at New York City’s Film Noir Club on March 13, Diabolique caught up with academic — and Jackson fan — Diabolique caught up with Kristopher Woofter to discuss Jackson’s work and what visitors can expect from the class.
Diabolique: Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your background?
Woofter: I have a PhD in Film and Moving Image Studies from Concordia University in Montreal, and I am a faculty member of the English department at Dawson College in Montreal, where I teach film and literature courses in horror, the Weird tradition, Hitchcock, and the American Gothic. I was co-chair of the Horror Area of the Popular Culture Association for ten years, and have been co-coordinating the Montreal Monstrum Society. I’ve been a horror reader, viewer and fan since I was very young, always attracted to the macabre.
Diabolique: When did you first discover Jackson’s work?
Woofter: My first contact with Jackson’s work, like so many school children of the 1970s, was with “The Lottery,” still, to my knowledge the most anthologized short story in American literature (and for good reason). But I really caught on to Jackson upon reading The Haunting of Hill House in my late teens. As a bit of an outsider, gradually coming into a queer identity, I identified with its protagonist Eleanor Vance. After that, I devoured Jackson’s work, moving on to We Have Always Lived in the Castle the only novel of hers other than Haunting that was in print. I bought Hangsaman and The Sundial used, and had to resort to purchasing a weirdly ugly library copy of The Bird’s Nest online to get access to her other work. It’s only recently that these books have been brought back into print.
Diabolique: What can visitors expect from your upcoming class?
Woofter: They can expect to be read to, for starters. I can’t imagine a better format for a lecture on literature than getting to hear examples of the work read live. Live reading also keeps the texts in the audience’s minds while I talk about Jackson’s masterful way of “weirding” the everyday struggles of women and other outsiders. The most important thing for me in a lecture on literature is to keep the text(s) in play — and not just the familiar ones.
Diabolique: Do you think Jackson’s work has been overlooked in scholar circles?
Woofter: Jackson’s work hasn’t been entirely overlooked in scholarly circles. Two early studies by Lenemaja Friedman (1975) and Joan Wylie Hall (1993) have been around for a while. And there is Darryl Hattenhauer’s 2003 book, Shirley Jackson’s American Gothic and Bernice Murphy’s 2005 collection, Shirley Jackson: Essays on the Literary Legacy, and the most recent Shirley Jackson: Influences and Confluences (2016) by Melanie R. Anderson and Lisa Kröger. But it’s true that there should be more.
In her time, Jackson wasn’t taken seriously for a number of reasons, primary among them that she was a woman writer who focused on women and the domestic sphere in large part. On top of that, she was a bestselling author and a genre writer. Genre fiction writers are often taken less seriously, to the point that some artists try to distance themselves from it. (See Jorden Peele’s calling Get Out! a “social thriller,” for example, instead of a horror film.) It was easy in the 1950s (and arguably still is) just to peg Jackson as a a writer of “women’s domestic fiction” because of her two best-selling semi-autobiographical books, Life Among the Savages (1953) and Raising Demons (1957). A successful woman writer who exposed the idyllic American family as a total sham in so much of her work? This didn’t go over well.
Diabolique: Finally, do you have any other projects or events coming up you can tell us about?
Woofter: I do! This April, the Montreal Monstrum Society is launching the inaugural issue of MONSTRUM, its new online, open-access academic journal devoted to studies in horror and related genres in all media. We’re very excited about this project. I also have a new book coming out later this year, a collection of essays entitled Joss Whedon vs. Horror: Fangs, Fans and Genre in Buffy and Beyond (London: I.B. Tauris) that I co-edited with UK scholar Lorna Jowett.
Click here for more information about the event.