Inside every woman’s heart lives the dream of poisoning everyone they know, isolating themselves in a ruined house in the woods (plus or minus a few close friends and a cat), and becoming enshrined in local legend as the child-eating witch used to scare children from mischief. Okay, maybe that’s just me, but the point still stands: being part of society is a drag and sometimes you are done interacting with people. Most of us deal with this by hiding ourselves away until we can stand people again, but what if that’s not enough? What if you could just lock yourself away, forever?
BEHIND THE PEN
Shirley Hardie Jackson (December 14, 1916 – August 8, 1965) was an influential American writer of dark fiction. When her short story “The Lottery” was published in the New Yorker in 1948, the magazine received more than 300 confused and outraged letters. (“I will never buy The New Yorker again,” wrote a reader from Massachusetts. “I resent being tricked into reading perverted stories like ‘The Lottery.’”) Besides over 200 short stories, Jackson’s works include the essential haunted house novel The Haunting of Hill House and her memoir Life Amongst the Savages. She has been cited as an influence by authors ranging from Neil Gaiman to Richard Matheson.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Jackson’s last published novel, reflects both her worsening agoraphobia at the end of her life and the ostracization she felt from the townsfolk in her home of North Bennington.
A NO-SPOILER SUMMARY
Mary Katherine “Merricat” Blackwood had a large family once, but then someone put arsenic in the sugar bowl and winnowed down the population of the Blackwood estate to just three. Merricat spends her days burying coins and nailing books to trees, magical practices of her own invention to keep her family safe, while her sister Constance keeps herself busy cooking, cleaning, and looking after their ailing uncle while he writes and rewrites his book about the family poisoning. And then their cousin Charles arrives, and with him the threat of change. But Merricat will not take that sitting down. The Blackwoods have always lived in the castle – and if she has her way, they always will.
VOICES FROM WITHIN
Consensus from HOWLers was unanimous: Shirley Jackson can write. In the words of @ProbableHag, “Jackson is such a master of small words and gestures.” “Shirley just knows how to write and spotlight very specific experiences of being a woman,” added @auntiemaim. The atmosphere and prose, combined with how Jackson slowly and gradually reveals information to the reader, were repeatedly mentioned in comments.
Discussion about Merricat and Constance was lively – were they heroes, villains, mentally ill, to be pitied or not to be pitied? Members empathized with Merricat for being the dirt-covered wild child bucking all expectations, while Constance frustrated some and provoked sympathy in others. Regarding Constance, @Fossie said, “The way (she) keeps their highly irregular and broken family unit running, I find myself really feeling for her and her situation.” Another member mentioned how she saw the sisters as two archetypes common to abusive families, the Rebel and the Fixer. (Cousin Charles did not get as rich a debate. To quote @auntimaim, “The first rule of Shirley Jackson: Men are trash.”)
Another aspect of Merricat and Constance brought up by HOWLS’ unofficial Jackson scholar @Asenath was how they represent Jackson’s absolute frustration with other people (particularly men), small towns, and social expectations of women in families. Female HOWLers were here for it, though one did mention that the townsfolk had reason to be hateful and mean because they’re poor and the rich people in their nice house got off on murder charges. Which, valid point.
Members read the ending of the book in a number of ways. Some felt it was unambiguously happy and an entry in the “Good For Her” literary catalogue, provoking comparisons to Midsommar and derailing the conversation a bit, while others felt it was a downer ending hiding under a hopeful facade. But regardless of whether it was a good or a bad outcome, everyone agreed that it – and the entire book – certainly was a relatable Mood.
WELCOME TO THE BLURBS: HOWL SOCIETY MEMBERS’ REVIEWS IN THEIR OWN WORDS
- Beautifully written, beautifully crafted.
- Well deserving of its status as a classic. So much to read into and so many different ways to interpret it.
- Shirley Jackson is perfect and can do no wrong.
- Unnerving and literary.
- I fell in love with Shirley Jackson this year. Her short stories, her novels. She is perfect in every way.
- Typically amazing prose. Excellent protagonist voice. Great balance of ambiguity, horror, and humor. Shirley Jackson’s ghost for president.
Jackson’s classic mystery is worth reading every bit as much today as when it was originally released. If you are looking for a book about ostracization and mental illness with a dose of black humor, or if you’ve ever been so done with humanity that you wanted to disappear into the woods forever, do yourself a favor and pick up We Have Always Lived in the Castle.