Looking for something spooky to read under the covers with some tea tonight? Look no further than Shirley Jackson, the master of creeping dread and spooky suspense. You may know Jackson’s famous short story The Lottery from high school, or perhaps you have watched the recent Netflix reimagining of her classic The Haunting of Hill House. Her works are often described as horror, but the subtlety of her writing gives it something more universal. Her themes often focus on the dark side of domestic life and isolation, and they often feature agoraphobia and critiques of the expectations of traditional society.
Jackson also wrote nonfiction about what it was like to be a mother and manage a home, something she considered to hold its own degree of horror. Jackson also felt that she and her family were considered outcasts in her small New England town, and they experienced anti-Semitism in the insidious manner one sees in “civilized society”. Toward the end of her life, she became so painfully agoraphobic she wouldn’t leave her bedroom. Much of what makes her fiction work horrific is because it is Jackson’s true-life experiences expressed through a fantastical lens, and as such there is something recognizable in it to all of us. We see how easy it could be for us to slip into some kind of madness, or for the precarious society around us to suddenly turn vicious. It is not gore or jump scares that make Jackson’s work terrifying, it is how she exposes the truth and ugliness in us all.
For this fall, I wanted to recommend a lesser talked about Jackson classic: We Have Always Lived in the Castle. This short (under 200 pages) novel is dark, twisted, unconventional, and incredibly beautiful. We enter into the lives of Mary Katherine (Merricat) and Constance Blackwood, two young women who live isolated in their large house with their wheelchair-bound uncle, Julian. The fractured family fell into disrepair after arsenic in the sugar bowl killed the rest of the Blackwoods half a decade ago. The only two who were not poisoned in the incident were Merricat and Constance, while Uncle Julian did not ingest enough of the poison to kill him. Constance, having been put on trial and then acquitted of the crime, now suffers from such extreme agoraphobia that she cannot leave the house. Uncle Julian is so much diminished from the poisoning that he struggles to keep one foot in reality. He depends on his nieces to care for him, which they do lovingly. The town is happy to keep them isolated, making disparaging comments and singing a haunting little nursery rhyme about the murders whenever Merricat comes near. And it is only ever Merricat that leaves their extensive grounds to go grocery shopping and run quick errands.
We view the story of their lives alone through Merricat’s point of view via her first-person narrative, which is both childlike and vicious. Joyce Carol Oates has described the character of Merricat as feral, which I would have to agree with. You don’t quite recognize it at first, but that feeling of wrongness builds throughout the story until finally you see what Merricat truly is. Even though she does all the shopping and errands for the household in the outside world, she is the most detached from reality of them all. Merricat’s disjointed thought process and her invented system of superstitions is incredibly off-putting and creates an atmosphere of sharp unease. It is easy to feel dizzy and disoriented while following Merricat as she runs through her protection rituals and buries her totems. She thrives in their isolation, and any talk of breaking the spell of seclusion literally chills Merricat. She cannot stomach the thought of it.
Through Merricat’s perceived efforts and rituals, their version of reality remains precariously balanced so that they don’t plunge back into chaos. That balance is broken when their long-lost cousin Charles arrives one day with motives of his own. He upsets the delicate atmosphere, and Merricat suffers the most. As she feared, chaos takes hold of the small family of survivors, opening their reality up to the vicious nature of society and the outside world. Their situation begins to resemble Merricat’s surreal interpretation of reality. Merricat has her own role to play in this chaos, however, and as the truth of their story is revealed you will wonder whether she truly feared these outcomes or wished for them to come. In the end, however, Merricat wins even in the family’s destitution.
Like in much of Jackson’s work, We Have Always Lived in the Castle is an exploration of otherness, persecution, and feelings of isolation. It’s a slow burn that crawls right under your skin and lives there. You can check out We Have Always Lived in the Castle, from the JKM Library by putting it on hold via our catalog here or coming into the library and finding it on the shelf on the 3rd floor, call number 813 J138wH and 813 J138wr (two copies available). Ask a librarian for help!