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.