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Legacy of author Shirley Jackson lives on in Sonoma County

Shirley Jackson, best-known for writing the sinister cautionary tale “The Lottery” and the classic ghost story “The Haunting of Hill House,” died in 1965 in Vermont, but the spirit of her work lives on today - in the hills outside Occidental.

That’s where her son, Laurence Jackson Hyman, serves as the vigilant guardian of his mother’s literary legacy, which is more potent now than ever, bringing her stories back into print in new editions and working with filmmakers on adaptations.

Jackson’s career certainly was not overlooked during her 48 years of life, but in recent years, her perennially popular work has received increasing attention from literary critics, and both her son and grandson have helped bring the spotlight back to her many stories, some eerie and some humorous.

“My mother is a rising star these days. It’s really incredible,” Hyman said, comfortably seated in an armchair in his home office, surrounded by photos, prints, rows of books and a couple of elaborate scale-model train sets. “I have been handling my mother’s literary estate since the early 1990s.”

It’s difficult to discreetly summarize “The Lottery,” which is set in a small American village, where residents anxiously await an annual ritual, the true nature of which isn’t revealed until the end of the story. Since the story was published in 1948, it has been adapted repeatedly over the decades for radio, television and films, and so has some of her other work.

Disappointed by some earlier screen treatments of his mother’s stories, Hyman has taken a more active role, serving as co-executive producer with Michael Douglas on a new film version of Jackson’s story “We Have Always Lived in the Castle,” due for distribution early next year. The film stars Alexandra Daddario, Sebastian Stan and Taissa Farmiga.

Never dependent on his mother’s work for income, Hyman, now 75, ran his own successful San Francisco business, Woodford Publishing, for more than 30 years, publishing books that ranged from baseball to blues to photography. He also put out the official programs and publications for the San Francisco Giants, New York Yankees and other major league teams.

Likewise, Hyman’s son Miles, 54, now living outside Paris, has established himself over the past 15 years as a successful painter and graphic artist in both the U.S. and France, but has also done his part to keep his grandmother Shirley Jackson’s work before the public.

The younger Hyman recently was awarded the prestigious title of Chevalia des Arts et des Lettres, or Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters, from the French Ministry of Culture. A formal presentation is planned for spring.

“It was for a body of work,” Miles said by phone from France. “My most recent book, which I think may have triggered this honor, was an adaptation of my grandmother’s short story, ‘The Lottery.’ I did it as a graphic novel, and it came out both in the United States and here in France. Graphic novels are an art form in France. They’re something people pay attention to.”

Miles’ proud father would rather emphasize his son’s accomplishments than his own. “He’s the one I have to call sir now,” Laurence Hyman joked.

Born in New York, Laurence Hyman grew up in Bennington, Vermont, where his father, Stanley Edgar Hyman, a literary critic and writer for magazines including the New Yorker and New Republic in the 1940s, taught literature at Bennington College.

“My mother at that time was writing, of course, but hadn’t really started to publish much until the mid-1940s,” Hyman said. “My father was the one who was well-known. I remember vividly the sound of typewriters going in our house all the time, my father on his and my mother on hers, and they’d just go a mile a minute. My mother wrote a lot about me and my siblings. I was a character in some stories.”

In addition to working on film projects, Hyman has worked to keep his mother’s stories in print. “Let Me Tell You,” a collection of Shirley Jackson stories that Hyman co-edited with his sister, Sarah Hyman DeWitt of Monte Rio, was published last year. Brother and sister also collaborated on an earlier collection of their mother’s stories, “Just an Ordinary Day,” published by Bantam Books in 1996.

The demand for access to Jackson’s work continues, with talk of a Netflix series and even plans for a San Francisco Ballet adaptation of one of her stories, Hyman said.

“There’s a lot of interest right now. My mother’s work is very relevant ... she was able to create stories that really resonate with the reader even now, and maybe especially now. Some of her frightening stories, like ‘Paranoia,’ could have been written yesterday,” Hyman said.

“The darkness in life is more evident to everyone now,” he added. “My mother’s basic position in her writing was that there is the possibility of evil. She loved to create situations, as she did in a lot of the stories, where it’s a beautiful day and the birds are singing, the grass is green, the children are playing, and on the surface everything is perfectly normal, but underneath, it isn’t.”

You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at 707-521-5243 or dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @danarts.

Dan Taylor

Arts & Entertainment, The Press Democrat

Do you take fun seriously? I know I do. Tell me what you want to know about arts and entertainment in the North Bay to make the best use of your leisure time and money. As a longtime local arts journalist, I have learned where to look and who to ask.

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