Mia Kellner tells of her thrilling first encounter with Shirley Jackson's eerie classic novel
It was a mild Friday in late April last year, the time when spring inches towards summer, and coursework deadlines are suffocating students before the mental marathon provided by revision week. I was on the Stagecoach 99 bus to St Andrews, the same bus I still get every day to commute from Dundee. Yet this was not an average day, for that warm late-spring, early-summer day was the first time I read, and truly discovered, Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
Widely regarded as Jackson’s best work, the novel had always been absentmindedly sitting in the recesses of my mind, imprinted upon my brain as one of the many books recommended by the internet’s literary circles. Yet, I never had any desire to read it until that day. Every time I heard about it, my interest would be sparked just long enough for me to look the book up on the internet, and judging it by its cover, decide that once again it was a boring book which was not for me. Perhaps I just confused it with Dodie Smith’s dull coming-of-age story I Capture the Castle (which I still have no inclination to read), but on that uniquely surreal bus ride, something was different.
I don’t know why I suddenly started reading Jackson’s novel that day; I had merely downloaded a short sampler from the Google Play store that morning to see if I would like the book. Perhaps I started reading it because of that specific bus journey – the combination of the blaring sun shining in my eyes and desire to avoid the eye contact of fellow bus passengers made me more willing to stare down at my phone and keep reading, but whatever it was, I was enthralled. I had only ever felt this way about two books before (minus the entire Harry Potter series): The Road and Fahrenheit 451. But the reading experience of We Have Always Lived in the Castle surpassed even those dystopian favourites of mine. I knew, from reading the first few lines of Jackson’s novel that the book would find its place amongst my mental shelf of favourite novels:
‘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.’
Two sisters, 18-year-old Merricat and her elder sister, Constance, live in a house with their Uncle Julian, who is mentally addled and confined to a wheelchair. They are sheltering a dark family secret, linked to a morbid incident which occurred in their home six years earlier. The house is isolated from the rest of the small Connecticut town; its declining upper-class inhabitants are ostracized by the townspeople. An intruder arrives in the Blackwood household in the form of Cousin Charles, failing to disguise his ill-intentions and prompting a slow-burn breakdown of the strange paradise which the family had been living in, awakening Merricat’s deep-seated rage.
While reading, I kept bracing myself for the inevitable misogyny that was characteristic of so many novels of the 60s (I’m talking about you, Italo Calvino and Kurt Vonnegut, this is why I despise you both), but I was happily relieved, finding none. The female characters are multi-dimensional and non-stereotypical – Constance does enjoy cooking and gardening, but these are hardly seen as her womanly ‘duties’; Merricat is not allowed to handle food, we find out later in the novel for a very good reason. Moreover, although Merricat and Constance are entirely different in their interests and personalities, they are not presented in opposition to one another – rather their sisterly relationship, if problematic on the part of Merricat, is complementary.
In my opinion, the 18-year-old Merricat Blackwood is one of the most nuanced female characters ever created in literature, and has attributes rarely afforded to literary characters. She has no love interest and expresses no romantic inclinations whatsoever. She is rude, awkward and full of rage, never trying to please people, as is usually expected of women. Merricat is an 18-year-old who would rather daydream and speak to her cat Jonas than interact with people whom she doesn’t want to – like her cousin and the loathsome townspeople.
I strangely resonated with the character of Merricat, which is probably concerning – she is frequently labelled by readers as sociopathic. For once, a female character wasn’t defined in terms of men or romantic desire, and an eighteen-year-old wasn’t expected to suddenly act like an adult, after they have so recently left childhood behind. Finally, there was a female character who wasn’t a paragon of brilliance or bravery (like Hermione Granger), but rather someone complex and troubled; Merricat is plagued by family issues and fierce grudges.
The slim 176-page novel could probably be read in one sitting. I read the book in the space of a weekend, because I wished to savour it. As often happens with good books, I stopped reading every few paragraphs just to take a deep breath and drink in Jackson’s beautiful imagery and structured simplicity. One phrase which particularly struck me: “I was wondering about my eyes; one of my eyes — the left — saw everything golden and yellow and orange, and the other eye saw shades of blue and grey and green; perhaps one eye was for daylight and the other was for night.”
We Have Always Lived in the Castle’s genre is hard to pin down. Published three years before Shirley Jackson’s death at the age of 45, it exhibits that strange, insurmountable quality that author’s final works possess. It is usually shunted into one of the following categories: Gothic, Mystery or Thriller, or it is given the vague label ‘Supernatural fiction’. For me, partially inspired by Bong Joon-Ho’s captivating description of his similarly unclassifiable film Parasite, Shirley Jackson’s eery masterpiece seems best described as a ghost story with no ghosts, and the backstory to a modern-day fairy tale.