classic literature

Shirley Jackson’s novels are eerie literary fiction. She left the best for the last

Fifty-five years after it was published, ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’ remains a must-read for those who think horror must be supernatural.

Literary fiction, the two most depressing words in the English language, leaves very little space for horror. It’s a claustrophobic, dusty attic in a mansion peopled by “serious” writers.

Sure, the holy trinity of Poe, Stoker and Lovecraft is held in high regard, but with the passage of time horror writing stopped being taken seriously. By horror I don’t mean just ghosts and witches, but all that frightens us – loss, deprivation, loneliness, mental instability, self-loathing and personal dissatisfaction.

That’s where the writing of Shirley Jackson makes a powerful case for the kind of horror that doesn’t depend on jump scares. Her last novel before an untimely death, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, plumbs the human psyche to prove that the inner workings of a character’s mind can sometimes be scarier than any ghost you’ve read about.

Genre out of the bottle

Widely read in America, Jackson is not as popular in other parts of the world. This could be put down to the fact that she juggled her roles as a mother of four and as a writer with some unease. She hardly gave any interviews, refused to elaborate on the meaning of her fiction, and wanted her work to speak for itself.

Another reason she may have been ignored by the literary canon is that she was instantly pegged as a horror writer. Genres exist to benefit two kinds of people – librarians and booksellers. This genre-lizing further alienated Jackson’s work and she came to be known as a writer who creeped you out and nothing more. As an Associated Press reporter put it, “She writes not with a pen but with a broomstick.” Another critic nicknamed her “Virginia Werewoolf.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. Castle reveals the horrifying murder of a family that sits heavy on the survivors and perpetrator. The reason for this premeditated, dreadful act is left to the imagination; yet you don’t come away disappointed by the end of the book.

This subtle ambiguity is what separates Shirley Jackson from what has come to be known as psychological horror. Castle is a story of the Blackwood sisters, Merricat (Mary Katherine) and Constance, who live in a grand, old mansion cut off from the rest of the village-folk. Their seclusion is the result of a gruesome incident six years ago, in which the entire Blackwood family died when someone spiked the sugar bowl with arsenic. The only surviving members are the two sisters and Uncle Julian, who was left paralysed by the incident.

Scenes from the film of the book
Scenes from the film of the book

Horror she wrote

Precocious, almost feral, Merricat the narrator draws you in right from the start. Her macabre thoughts are unlike any other young adult’s in literary fiction; Scout (To Kill a Mockingbird) or Holden Caulfield (The Catcher in the Rye) have to take a backseat in comparison. She confides in the reader, allowing you to be drawn into her world where magic and murder exist side by side.

“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.”

The authority of this opening paragraph builds up throughout the novel. Proving an experience that’s disturbing to say the least, Merricat goes on to tell us how she detests the villagers and their children.

“…I wished they were dead. I would have liked to come into the grocery one morning and see them all…crying with the pain and dying. I would then help myself to groceries, I thought, stepping over their bodies…I was never sorry when I had thoughts like this; I only wished they would come true…

Their tongues will burn, I thought, as though they had eaten fire. Their throats will burn when the words come out, and in their bellies they will feel a torment hotter than a thousand fires.”

Merricat is not all doom and gloom. What puts the reader on edge is the careful balancing of dark thoughts with the deep-rooted affection for her sister Constance.

“When I was small I thought Constance was a fairy princess…I used to try to draw her picture, with long golden hair and eyes as blue as the crayon could make them, and a bright pink spot on either cheek…because she did look like that…nothing had ever seemed to dim the brightness of her. She was the most precious person in my world, always.”

Also, when Merricat is out exploring the fields that encompass the family estate, her pastoral descriptions are shafts of sunlight in an otherwise sinister mental landscape.

“The day outside was full of changing light, and Jonas danced in and out of shadows as he followed me…We were going to the long field which today looked like an ocean, although I had never seen an ocean; the grass was moving in the breeze and the cloud shadows passed back and forth and the trees in the distance moved….”

Merricat is unafraid of saying exactly what she’s thinking, whether describing her family’s orchards and pine trees or the imagined death of an entire village. This dichotomy makes the reader wonder – does she know more than she’s letting on? What caused her to become the eighteen-year-old who talks to her cat, Jonas, and uses made-up wizardry to keep people away from the Blackwood estate?

The answer to both questions is superbly laid out as the novel unfolds. Piece by piece, we begin to understand what went wrong here. The Blackwoods were poisoned by a member of the family. It has to be either Merricat or Constance. The resentment of the jealous village-folk is only heightened by the unsolved murder. And the strange traits of the sisters start falling into place. Like solving a jigsaw puzzle of a blurred image, the reader begins to pick up clues dropped by Merricat, Constance and by the invalid senile, Uncle Julian.

“‘I used that sugar.’ Uncle Julian shook his finger at her. ‘I used that sugar myself, on my blackberries. Luckily,’ and he smiled blandly, ‘fate intervened. Some of us, that day, she led inexorably through the gates of death. Some of us, innocent and unsuspecting, took, unwillingly, that one last step to oblivion. Some of us took very little sugar.’

In some ways, Uncle Julian sailed on, a piece of extraordinarily good fortune for me. I am a survivor of the most sensational poisoning case of the century. I have all the newspaper clippings. I knew the victims, the accused, intimately, as only a relative living in the very house could know them. I have exhaustive notes on all that happened. I have never been well since.”

Constance’s strange indifference to the tragedy shows the reader she’s much more than just someone involved with overall domesticity. She was tried and acquitted for the murder of her family. She never steps beyond her garden and when Merricat notices worrying signs of her coveting a change, a swift series of events ensures she never makes it out.

The novel ends on a surprisingly positive note. After a fire that nearly burnt down their mansion, Merricat and Constance continue living in their dilapidated household completely cut away from the rest of the world. The Blackwood murders become an urban legend and Merricat finally gets what she wanted- complete and utter seclusion.

Shirley Jackson | Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Shirley Jackson | Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Jackson’s heights

In an article, “The Witchcraft of Shirley Jackson”, writer Joyce Carol Oates draws a parallel between the writer’s personal life and the Blackwood sisters. She writes, “It’s ironic to note that Shirley Jackson died at the age of forty-eight, shortly after the publication of Castle, of amphetamine addiction, alcoholism, and morbid obesity…and in the final months of her life suffered from agoraphobia so extreme she couldn’t leave her squalid bedroom – as if in mimicry of the agoraphobic sisters of We Have Always Lived in the Castle.”

The blurb for Stephen King’s masterpiece, The Shining, called him “the master of the modern horror story.” His problem with that title was that it ignored the likes of Shirley Jackson. Neil Gaiman describes Castle as: “a wonderful literary novel that’s also a mystery and a perfect study of the inside of someone’s head – a strange novel that lives on the border of fantasy without ever crossing it. I love the unease of it.”

The heart of Shirley Jackson’s work is made up of the fears and aspirations of the female protagonist. In all her novels and short stories, the woman is the pivot around which all the action unfolds. Nearly two decades before Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, Jackson was writing about the isolation and dissatisfaction of women who felt trapped in their houses. The endless cycle of caring for their children, household chores and social acceptance was more vicious than it looked from the outside.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is the culmination of a gifted writer’s short-lived career. It’s a novel that draws you in with a murder and lets you go with a coming-to-terms instead of a resolution. A story so finely crafted that you begin to question everything you believe about what’s right or wrong. That, in itself, is a monumental achievement for a writer commonly branded spooky.

In the 55th year of its publication, We Have Always Lived in the Castle is the perfect mirror of our times. It makes the reader ponder on the moral inequality of society, the mob mentality, and our biggest drawback as humans – the persecution of those who are different.

P.S: The Lottery, a short story where inhabitants of a small town gather annually for a disturbing ritual, is the perfect introduction to Shirley Jackson’s work. Once you’re hooked, try Castle on for size and move on to The Haunting of Hill House, which Stephen King calls “one of the finest horror novels of the late twentieth century.”

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