Shirley Jackson is one of the most prominent authors of the Gothic fiction genre, which originates in eighteenth-century literature. However, her take on Gothic fiction, which generally combines elements of horror and romance, is unique. Jackson deals more with psychological rather than supernatural horror.
Jackson incorporated complex social and psychological themes to create evocative novels and stories that horrify because they tap into the abnormalities of familial relationships, domestic settings, and everyday social interaction. “She is wholly and avowedly concerned with human relationships, and it is from their complexities that both horror and the supernatural emerge in her work” (Joshi 185). The typical Gothic novel, such as The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis, often features such mysterious buildings as churches, secret passageways, and dark basements. Similarly, architecture plays a key feature in Jackson’s works as a physical reflection of her characters’ identities. But she forgoes the traditional Gothic themes and, by incorporating the genre's sense of imminent evil and sinister intentions into domestic settings, heightens the horror.
For Jackson, horror and evil are not necessarily constructed from ghosts and goblins. On the contrary, the oppression of domesticity can be just as horrific. Women in particular in her stories are led to feel that their constriction is overwhelming. Jackson continually struggled with the expectations that her mother and later her husband forced upon her. She not only supported their family, including four children, with her literary career but also managed the daily household responsibilities. “Anxious almost everywhere but home, Jackson eventually could not stand to be there either because of the pressures of doing all of the domestic duties while producing not only mass-market moneymakers but also serious literature” (Hattenhauer 21).
The postwar era in the United States witnessed a return to particular domestic ideals, which Jackson perceived to be claustrophobic. This perspective is reflected in many of her characters, married or unmarried, such as Elizabeth, Mrs. Winning, and Mrs. Arnold. While their environments allow sinister fantasies to take root, sometimes only to help them escape the boredom of reality, horror is also evoked from within Jackson's characters. There is enough evil lurking within them to come out under oppressive circumstances, even when the oppression is little more than the press of social convention on an older, unmarried woman. Jackson's skill as an author lies in her ability to elicit from her readers the uneasy realization that we are susceptible to our own internal horrors.