“Bow all your heads to our adored Mary Katherine.”
In recent years Shirley Jackson has experienced a kind of renascence. Perhaps because of Netflix’s adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House or possibly thanks to contemporary authors (such as Donna Tartt, Neil Gaiman, and Stephen King) who have credited Jackson as their inspiration, enhancing her reputation, and prompting a reappraisal of her work. The fact that the Gothic and Horror genres—long regarded as cheap and sensational—are no longer considered ‘lowbrow’ fiction has also contributed to this reassessment of Jackson’s oeuvre. Modern readers now see Jackson as a central figure of the America Gothic as much of her fiction paints a fascinating—if not disturbing—portrait of postwar America . Yet, I find it difficult to pigeonhole Jackson as a Horror writer. Her narratives often feature emotionally disturbed women who are trapped within Kafkaesque worlds. They reality they presents us with seems off. Jackson seems to magnify the way in which traditions and societal expectations threaten one’s individuality and creativity. Most of her stories follow a woman’s ‘quest’ to find or maintain her identify. The ‘horror’ within Jackson’s stories is experienced by her characters. It is because most of her protagonists are labelled as ‘different’ that they are made vulnerable. Yet, readers will often find that all of Jackson’s characters behave with eccentricity (there are whole towns and communities populated by weird people…a bit a la A Series Of Unfortunate Events). In spite of this our protagonists are still singled out, often because they seem more interested in practicing their personal brand of witchcraft than of engaging with the rest of their world.
Madness and evil pervade Jackson’s writing to the extent that even her depictions of everyday occurrences are riddled with human weaknesses, fears, and cruelties. In We Have Always Lived in the Castle evil takes many forms.
The protagonist of We Have Always Lived in the Castle—which happens to be Jackson’s last published novel—has no interest in personal growth. Mary Katherine, who goes by the nickname of Merricat (quite fitting given that she often behaves like her closest companion, a black cat named Jonas), is an untame and defiant tomboy whose apparent ingenuousness hides a razor-alert mind. Six years before the events of the narrative—at the age of twelve—Merricat’s mother, father, aunt, and younger brother died after eating sugar laced with arsenic. Constance, Merricat’s older sister, is accused and acquitted of the crime.
Ostracised from their village, Merricat and Constance have become completely estranged from society. At the age of eighteen—free from her parents’ rules—Merricat has fashioned Blackwood Manor into her own private and idyllic world. The two sisters and Uncle Julian—who survived the poisoning but is now wheelchair-bound and increasingly senile—lead a life that is relatively quiet and governed by the daily chores and the ritual of mealtimes. Constance is in charge of the cooking and spends most of her days looking after Uncle Julian and completing household chores with Merricat, whom she treats with loving indulgence, often condoning Merricat’s disturbing behaviour by saying “silly Merricat”. When Constance voices her desire to go outside of the property, Merricat fear of this begins to manifests itself in her surroundings, skewing the way she perceives her reality so that she views ordinary things as ‘omens’ that “spoke of change.” Merricat attempts to regain control of the situation through her witchcraft and by breaking objects but with cousin Charles’ unannounced visit, Merricat is forced to take more drastic approaches to self-preservation.
third fourth reading of this short and beautifully odd novel has made me even more appreciative of Shirley Jackson’s mastery of words. The first time I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle I was propelled into an increasingly puzzling yet utterly compelling story. During my second reading, I payed more attention to all of the novel’s components, rather than just getting swept along the bizarrely unapologetic storyline. Each time I re-read this novel, I love it even more. Jackson doesn’t feel the need to explain the surreal reality of her novels which makes readers such as me all the more in awe of her craft. Although it is difficult to draw comparisons, I could describe her style as David Lynch meets Tim Burton. Everything and everyone within this novel is peculiar and most scenes and conservations seem to hold a level of absurdity. Merricat’s narrative is also marked by a sense of growing unease (towards change, the future, anything other than her own version of reality) and the tension created by her various anxieties is alleviated by the story’s dark humour.
There are many different layers to We Have Always Lived in the Castle. One the one hand, it is exactly what its reputation promises it to be: an incredibly eerie and compelling short novel. On the other hand, it also delves into many challenging and unsettling subjects, such as paranoia, persecution and violence. Shirley Jackson does not shy away from portraying the darker corners of human nature, in fact, she delves right into the darkest parts of the human psyche.
On the surface, Merricat’s alienation is debilitating yet a closer look suggests that her estrangement from her society is act of self-preservation, one that is both empowering and subversive, allowing them to defy the societal norms and expectations of their time. Throughout the course of her narrative she attempts—for better or worse—to shape and maintain her own identities, refusing the role thrust upon her by her society. In Jackson’s novels, a world of fantasy is preferable to the ‘real’ world, which is populated by people who perform acts of cruelty, physical brutality and or psychological violence against those they perceive as ‘outsiders’. Merricat, who embodies the feared ‘other’ through her unwillingness, if not outright refusal, to adhere to established social conventions, is the ideal scapegoats of her community.
Merricat’s megalomania shows itself through her desire to exact punishments and for designating things and people as either “good” or “bad”. Her dichotomous view of the world causes her to behave in extremes: she varies between acting like a feral child, a sulky adolescent, and a seemingly Cassandra-like individual. Merricat obeys her childish impulses, and readily resorts to violence when not getting her way. Although Merricat sounds much younger than her eighteen years, her naivety is misleading, and her fantasies can easily move between those of a child (“I really only want a winged horse, anyway. We could fly you to the moon and back, my horse and I”) and those of a far more ruthless and dangerous person.
Her sadistic fantasies, her manipulation and subordination of Constance, and her desire to frighten others (“I always thought about rot when I came toward the row of stores; I thought about burning black painful rot that ate away from inside, hurting dreadfully. I wished it on the village.” ) reveal Merricat’s cunning awareness. Readers might find her charming, yet warped perspective jarring, especially since she avoids explaining her most malevolent deeds.
Merricat’s surreal inner world is conveyed through her first-person narration and readers are granted a unique insight into some of her mental strategies that she uses to feel protected from world around her’. To an outsider like her cousin Charles, many of Merricat’s actions seem to be unwarranted temper tantrums. Readers, on the other hand, know that Merricat always attributes a meaning—however absurd or far-fetched it may appear—to her every action and word. We are aware that she deliberately smashes objects in an effort to regain control over her life.
Merricat’s tendency to let her fantasies dictate her behaviour, turning her imagination into reality, distances herself from the ever-present threat of reality. She attempts to change and control aspects of her life through magical charms and fantasies, with little direct engagement with the outside world. Merricat’s need of control could possibly stems from her ‘fear of change’ which in turn causes her to perceive anything outside her and Constance’s established routine, such as the arrival of uninvited guests, as a threat to their wellbeing. Merricat tries to deflect ‘change’ through her own unique brand of witchcraft, which consists in the performance of various magical rituals, the burying of various ‘safeguards’, unspoken ‘spells’, and even the occasional“‘offering of jewellery out of gratitude”. Merricat draws strength from her belief in magic. What Charles—and presumably the rest of society—would see as childish games, Merricat views as the means to safeguard her future and protect her from the outside.
It is up to Merricat to fashion her home, Blackwood Manor, into a ‘castle’—a stronghold—which she can protect through various magical rituals and wards, and Merricat believes that nothing—and no one—can prevent her from projecting her fantastical and solipsistic view of the world onto her reality.
Shirley Jackson’s style is perfectly attuned to Merricat’s unnerving mind. Her obsessive and impulsive nature is fluidly conveyed by Jackson’s repetitive and rhythmical writing. Jackson also evokes a surrealisms reminiscent of fairy tales through the Merricat’s childlike urges and morbid fascination.
Merricat is a beguiling narrator. Her playful fantasies are juxtaposed against the most violent and bizarre thoughts. Her devotion to her sister borders on the obsessive yet it is through this puzzling relationship that we see a more genuine side to Merricat’s character. In spite of her selfish nature, her palpable fears and unique worldview make her into a fascinating protagonist. Once the stability of the sisters’ purposely reclusive existence is threatened, Merricat survives through her active fantasy. She retreats into the deepest parts of her made-up world. And it is her increasingly desperate attempts to retain control over both Constance’s and her own life that make her into such a brilliant character. Even in those instances where she ‘simply’ observes others, Merricat is always ‘there’, her presence unmissable to the readers.
Her sister Constance also demonstrates worrying behaviour. She too is initially in complete denial over the family’s status. She is in some things, rather controlling, while in other instances, she seemed…on another planet. While Constance remains a cypher of sorts, we see why Merricat needs her.
Uncle Julian ramblings were endearing and his sharp remarks provided much entertainment. Much of the story’s humour springs from his character.
Merricat perceives cousin Charles a threat right from the start. The scenes featuring him are brimming with tension: Merricat’s apprehension is all too real, and I found myself viewing him as an ‘enemy’, just as she does. Merricat’s descriptions of him often present him as something not quite human, a ghost or some such creature. While we can see that some of his criticisms towards Constance and Merricat had some truth, we are always seeing him through Merricat’s eyes.
The underlying suspense, the growing unease, make this uncanny tale hard to put down.The vivid descriptions are simply tantalising, the surreal quality of the characters’ conversations is darkly amusing and the atmospheric setting is almost tangible. We Have Always Lived in the Castle makes for a lush and macabre read, one that will probably strike you as weird yet ultimately compelling. It could be read as a fairy-tale of sorts, an alternative to folklore narratives, or as a story that sets otherness against ‘herd’ mentality.
Recently there has been a film adaptation of this novel (you can watch the trailer for it here) which, in spite of some minor alterations, brings to life Jackson’s story. It conveys the novel’s unapologetic weirdness, its idiosyncrasies, and its black humour. The film Stoker also seems to have drawn inspiration from this novel.
The first page of this novel perfectly encapsulates its style and tone. If you are uncertain whether this is the kind of story for you, I recommend you read its opening paragraph:
“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 deathcup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.”
My rating: ★★★★★ stars
illustration by Thomas Ehretsmann