When the New Yorker published Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” in 1948, it inspired more letters from readers than any other piece of fiction the magazine had published. And no wonder: Jackson’s tale of a seemingly bucolic village with a horrifying annual tradition helped cement her reputation as a writer of literary suspense in the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe and Henry James. (Not all readers were equally horrified, though: there were some queries, perhaps overly casual, about where the letter writer could personally witness such a lottery.)
The success of “The Lottery” also provided Jackson with an opportunity for a little authorial mythmaking. (According to her author bio, she was “perhaps the only contemporary writer” who was likewise “a practicing amateur witch.”) As Jackson tells it, she got the idea for the story while running errands one morning. She went home, deposited her toddler in a playpen, left the groceries in the kitchen, and sat down to type the first draft of “The Lottery.” She made almost no corrections, sending it off to her agent the next day. Like most tall tales, this one isn’t entirely true—Jackson did tinker with the text—but it does give you a sense of who she was: a writer who knew the value of mythmaking, and a woman whose home life and artistic life were intimately intertwined.
In Shirley, the Sundance award–winning movie now available on Hulu, director Josephine Decker explores the psychic tension between these two roles to create a haunting domestic suspense story that Jackson would surely have approved of. To be clear, Shirley is not a biopic; Sarah Gubbins adapted the screenplay from Susan Scarf Merrell’s 2015 novel of the same name. The film reimagines the year that Jackson spent writing her second novel Hangsaman through the eyes of Rose Nemser (Odessa Young), a wide-eyed newlywed who has just arrived in Vermont. She and her husband Fred (Logan Lerman) are there to live with Shirley and her husband Stanley, a professor who has offered Fred a teaching job at the local college. What starts as a temporary living situation quickly turns toxic as the Jacksons use the younger couple as proxies in their own marital battles, playing on Rose and Fred’s fears and ambitions for their benefit and amusement.
Shirley (played by Elisabeth Moss) and Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg) loom as larger-than-life figures from the first moment Rose sees them. When the Nemsers arrive at their new home, they find Stanley, bearded and wreathed in a laurel crown, dancing with a crowd of guests before a bonfire like a mad Dionysus. Shirley, meanwhile, remains inside the house, holding her guests spellbound as she recounts how she wrote “The Lottery” in a day. At the height of her creative powers, Shirley is nevertheless tied to her house, unable to leave because of her intense agoraphobia and her creative dependence on her husband (who spent their first date giving her edits on one of her stories). His description of their early courtship is downright predatory: “I knew I was going to marry the woman who wrote [that story],” Stanley explains, to the amusement of their guests. “I was going to hunt her down and make her marry me.”