We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Cover by Thomas Ott

Shirley Jackson’s final novel (published in 1962) begins six years after an infamous poisoning case in rural Vermont. One night, all but three members of the wealthy Blackwood family were killed when they finished their evening meal with a dessert of blackberries sprinkled with sugar — and, it turned out, arsenic. Of the three who survived, twelve-year-old Mary Katherine (“Merricat”) had been sent, that evening, to bed without any supper (we never learn what for, only that she “was always in disgrace… a wicked, disobedient child”); 22-year-old Constance prepared the meal, but was known to never take sugar on her blackberries; and old Uncle Julian was poisoned but survived, though no longer with all his wits intact. Constance was put on trial, but with insufficient evidence that she intended to poison her family (which included her parents, Uncle Julian’s wife, and her ten-year-old brother Thomas), was acquitted. Shortly after that, following an unspecified incident in the local village, she has never since left the Blackwood family home and its grounds.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is narrated by Merricat, who, though now eighteen, seems stuck in her six-years-prior self. She’s still the irresponsible, petulant child she was back then, spending her days in imaginative games, and burying significant items (a box of silver dollars, a cache of blue marbles) about the grounds as magical protections. She has strict taboos — she can’t handle food, she can’t enter Uncle Julian’s room — which make her seem stuck in the initiation stage of adolescence (some traditional societies’ initiations involve taboos, such as not touching the ground, or not speaking, for a time). She, though, is the only member of the family who can leave the house and its grounds, and makes twice-weekly visits to the village to buy food, during which she’s only too aware of the stares and comments of the townsfolk, and the way children chant mocking rhymes as she passes:

Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!

Popular Library cover, by William Teason

It’s obvious the Blackwood family are caught in a stasis. Uncle Julian talks of nothing but the poisoning, about which he’s compiling copious notes to write a history of that night. Constance devotes herself entirely to feeding and caring for the other two, and thinks of nothing beyond her limited domestic bounds. Merricat, an eternal twelve-year-old, is allowed to wander and play, indulging in fantasies of living on the moon. The Blackwood sisters are complimentary opposites, but share an unspoken understanding as though they’re the two halves of a single soul. Constance, for instance, is over-responsible, even blaming herself for Merricat’s misbehaviours — but never telling Merricat off or punishing her. (The last time Merricat was punished was when she was sent to bed without any supper on the night of the poisoning.) Merricat, on the other hand, is wilful and irresponsible in her moods. If she’s angry, she might deliberately shatter a jug or a mirror, and Constance just accepts this as a thing that had to happen and cleans up after her. Constance is utterly domestic, and blanks out every other part of life; Merricat is imaginative, witchy (she has a cat and casts spells), and is mostly lost in daydreams, existing in a world charged with magical forces, a little like the girl in Machen’s “The White People” or Du Maurier’s “The Pool”.

I wrote before about Jackson’s extreme ambivalence about the idea of home — how in her fiction it’s both a longed-for refuge from the world and a potential trap or prison — and in We Have Always Lived in the Castle that extends to other aspects of the home, with both family and food highly charged sources of nurture on the one hand, and suppression and control on the other.

1st edition cover, art by Paul Bacon

Food is particularly important in the novel, both as a symbol of everyday familial love, and of the consequences of love’s withdrawal or repression. Constance cooks for her charges, always providing exactly what they want, and always thinking of the next pie or plate of cookies she might bake; but it was through food — the poisoned sugar — that the rest of the family was killed. On that night, Merricat was sent to her room without food, a withdrawal of familial love (though she knew her sister would come up later with a tray — the two had a close connection even then). The one thing that takes Merricat out of the house and into the village — and so, the one way in which the family still relates to society — is to buy food. But she also has a taboo against eating in front of strangers — she will always buy a coffee at a certain café in the village, but if another customer enters, she leaves without drinking it — and doesn’t allow herself to touch food or prepare it. (And near the end of the novel, after the villagers have spent their violent antipathy towards the Blackwoods, that relationship turns to contrition, which is again expressed through food — the pies and other supplies left on the Blackwood porch.)

The most potent food symbol in the book is in the Blackwood cellar. Generations of Blackwood women have made jars of preserves, and they’re all stored there, in the dark, underground. These preserves, Constance says, have probably turned bad or even poisonous with age, like a battery of stored-up yet unused or suppressed-and-going-sour love, all the untapped potentials of generations of women. Family is, in the novel, freighted with an almost palpable historical weight, its traditions acting both as an anchor of solidity and a repressive burden:

“…as soon as a new Blackwood wife moved in, a place was found for her belongings, and so our house was built up with layers of Blackwood property weighting it, and keeping it steady against the world.”

To me, it feels as though the poisoning that occurred was waiting to happen, an upsurge from all that buried, preserved food-going-poisonous in the cellar, and so much locked-away and unspent, unexpressed familial love.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle reminds me of other stories of insular-and-gone-strange families, including 1970’s Mumsy, Sonny, Nanny, & Girly (which I mewsed on back in 2010), or the 2009 film Dogtooth, right back to Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher” and so many Gothic tales before that. The one essential element in all these stories is that, at some point, someone comes along to upset the family’s stasis, some outsider or agent of change.

Into this novel comes cousin Charles, whose father (the Blackwood sisters’ non-Julian uncle) has recently died, leaving him nothing. Charles knows the Blackwoods have money, and though we can’t be sure this is his motive for visiting, it’s certainly what our narrator Merricat suspects. Charles ensconces himself in the father’s room, starts wearing the father’s watch and sitting at the head of the dining room table. He clearly finds Uncle Julian’s messy way of eating disgusting (food and control, again), and feels the old man should be made to shut up about the only subject he ever talks about, the poisoning. Charles also thinks Merricat’s wildness needs to be tamed. Perhaps she should be sent away again, as she was after the poisoning (to an orphanage, because Charles’s father refused to take her in). Constance, so domestic and responsible, starts to be taken in by Charles’s arguments, but Merricat, of course, is not.

In both of the Jackson novels I’ve read — this one and The Haunting of Hill House — the ambivalence about home, how it can be both a refuge and a trap, a place to belong and a place to be imprisoned in, is never resolved, only transformed and intensified until it becomes a weird mix of fairy-tale fulfilment and hellish damnation. Eleanor, in The Haunting of Hill House, wants nothing more than a home she can belong to, but when she first sees Hill House she instantly knows it’s a nightmare. Nevertheless, she finds a home there, perhaps because she can find no other home, being the person she is (or feels she is). We Have Always Lived in the Castle begins with a family in self-protective retreat, whose home is both a castle-like defence against the world, and the stultifying bounds of a self-imposed prison. By the end, things have changed, but only by becoming more intensely the same. It’s a weirdly deranged ending that somehow makes total and irreversible retreat into a kind of fairy-tale fulfilment. The Blackwood sisters become, in the end, even more removed from reality, a final, fatal step away from Constance’s domestic sensibleness and into Merricat’s moon-mindedness. They become a fairy tale to scare local kids with — and scare them, of course, by saying they’ll eat them. Food again.

The Institute by Stephen King

UK Hardback

Kids with psychic abilities are kidnapped and taken to the Institute, where they’re put through a series of demeaning and abusive medical procedures in “Front Half” before being taken to “Back Half”, where their abilities are put to use. They’re told that, once they’ve served their term, they’ll have their memories of the Institute wiped and be set free, but none of the kids are buying that. There’s rumours of a back half to Back Half, where the burn-outs are kept. And after that, well, the Institute has its own cremation facilities.

My first reaction on reading about The Institute was, “Ah, Stephen King does Stranger Things,” because of the psychic-kids-in-an-institute idea, though of course Stranger Things is the Duffer Brothers doing Stephen King, so really it came down to Stephen King doing Stephen King. Kids with psychic powers have been there in his fiction from the start (Carrie), and Firestarter was a key influence on both the character of Stranger Things’ Eleven, and Hawkins Labs where she’s held, but I wonder if watching the show sparked King off with a need to revisit the idea. (According to an article in the New York Times, he began writing the novel in March 2017, so that would have been between Stranger Things’ seasons 1 and 2.)

German cover

But the Institute is no Hawkins Labs, and its kids are nothing like Eleven. Most of the children have no conscious control of their powers, and even those that do, know how weak they are — the best of them can, by really concentrating hard, just about hold back the midges that hang around the rundown Institute playground, or get a vague telepathic sense when someone’s lying. So it’s a mystery why anyone would go to such an effort to kidnap a bunch of children with “psychic abilities that wouldn’t even pass an America’s Got Talent audition”.

The Institute itself is hardly hi-tech. It’s tired and rundown, and mostly just going through the motions. It’s not interested in scientific discovery. (One doctor’s allowed to experiment on the less promising subjects, but it’s strictly a side project.) The main purpose is to get the kids through a well-worn process — give them the necessary jabs, put them through the standard tests — and most of the staff have long since ceased to regard their charges’ humanity as anything but a nuisance. Most are casually cruel; the few who aren’t are outright nasty.

There’s a weird air about the Institute of belonging to another age. The snacks in the vending machines (which kids can purchase with tokens they’re given for good behaviour) include sweets from decades past (candy cigarettes, for instance), though I wasn’t able to pick up on all of King’s hints about this as, to me, all American snacks sound made up. The TVs in Back Half, meanwhile, show “only prehistoric sitcoms like Bewitched and Happy Days”. I was wondering if this was going to be a plot point, or even a joke about Stranger Things’ retro appeal, but in the end I think it was just King connecting these kids’ experience to his own childhood.

US hardback

The main character we follow in The Institute is Luke Ellis, a twelve-year-old prodigy who has minor, unconscious telekinetic abilities. He’s super clever, but the Institute doesn’t care about that. To them, he’s just another kid to be put through the grinder — to be processed, but also humiliated, controlled and broken along the way. One thing that really came through in the first half of the novel is how powerless these children are in a world where the adults don’t give a damn about them. Luke’s first task is to fight as hard as he can not to be institutionalised — not to give in to that sense of powerlessness and simply accept the situation, but also not to pointlessly rebel for the sake of it, which just ends in pain.

I haven’t read much criticism of King’s work taken as a whole, so it was only when I was halfway into the book that I realised how often the theme of incarceration, and escape at great odds, occurs in his work (in, for instance, “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”, Misery, and Gerald’s Game, as well as being an early rite of passage for a number of characters in The Stand). All of these stories are about characters fighting unfair and often life-threatening imprisonment with a combination of cleverness and patient determination, and King seems to have a particular penchant for that sweet feeling of pure, abstract freedom which follows.

As the book goes on, there are growing hints that the Institute is doing what it does out of a genuine belief in a greater good, and not just the standard thought-stopper of “national security”. It made me feel the novel was heading towards an outright moral argument — could any ends ever justify such means? — but it never did, not in such abstract terms, anyway. Which is a pity, because I think it’s good to have even such basic moral arguments aired every so often. (Virtually every review and interview I’ve read about The Institute brings up the incarceration and separation of children from their families on the U.S.-Mexican border that started in 2018, so it’s not as if the novel needs to evoke the horrors of the past to find any relevance.)

The Institute is the best King novel I’ve read in a while. It may be in part thanks to its having only a very light touch of the supernatural — meaning King couldn’t indulge in the sort of over-the-top horrorshow pyrotechnics that have put me off reading him in the past (Duma Key, for instance) — but also thanks to some very tight plotting, with a large chunk of the novel switching between three very suspenseful situations all playing out at the same time. It made The Institute into a real page-turner.

Memory: The Origins of Alien

Weird Science, July 1951, containing “The Seeds of Jupiter”

After his last film, 78/52, a feature-length documentary about the shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho (the title refers to the number of camera set-ups and cuts in the scene), Alexandre O Philippe’s latest is an examination of the imaginative, mythical, and artistic roots of the xenomorph in Alien. So, we get to learn something about writer Dan O’Bannon’s rural upbringing (plenty of bugs about), and his early fascination with sci-fi, including a number of films and comics that have startling similarities to Alien (an EC Comic from 1951, “Seeds of Jupiter”, for instance, where an alien gestates in a man’s stomach), as well as his various attempts at scripting the film that would eventually become Alien. (One of these, which O’Bannon called Memory, was almost identical to the first 30 minutes of Alien. The title came from the fact that, once the spaceship crew were down on the planet they visit, they start losing their memories.) In terms of artistic influence, there’s not just H R Giger’s evident input (fought for, and at times personally paid for, by O’Bannon), but also Ridley Scott’s directing him towards Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion” as a guide to designing the chest-burster.

Francis Bacon, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, from Tate.org

One of the most striking aspects of the documentary, for me, were the parallels it drew between Alien and ancient myth. The film itself opens with the ruins at Delphi, and shows us the three Furies of Greek Myth being woken from sleep by a spaceship-computer-like announcement, then breaking a laser-through-smoke “membrane” as they rise — all very much in the style of Alien. “The reek of human blood smiles out at me,” one says (quoting the Oresteia), displaying a very xenomorphish set of metallic teeth. One of the film’s contributors, Dr William Linn, explicitly draws a parallel between the xenomorph and the Furies. In Alien, he says, “You see a major curse, in the form of the alien, who is very much a Fury responding to an imbalance.” It’s a pity he’s never given the chance to explain this at length — perhaps there’ll be an extended interview with him as a DVD extra sometime — but this, to me, seems to miss a fundamental point that made Alien, and so many of the most characteristic examples of 20th century horror, so different to their forebears. Because, for me, the point about what happens in Alien is that the xenomorph’s killing of the crew is not in response to some cosmic or divine imbalance. It happens not because the crew have done anything wrong; it happens because this is the sort of thing that can happen in the universe, and it just so happens it’s this crew it happens to. It’s not because they did anything wrong, simply because they exist.

The ancient Greeks believed that if something good or bad happened to you, you could attribute it to the good- or ill-will of a supernatural entity, a god or goddess who was pleased with you or angry with you. Even if it seemed to make no obvious sense, you just had to assume you’d angered or pleased one of the many (and not always very reasonable) gods, so better make a sacrifice to appease/thank him or her. 20th century mythologies such as Lovecraft’s did away with divine agency. To them, the universe wasn’t full of intelligent forces that cared enough about mankind to punish it when it did wrong. The universe simply didn’t care. It was a machine, rolling on, doing its thing, and if you got caught up and crushed in the workings, well, that was what happened — the universe was full of danger. Not hostility, which implies feeling. Just danger. To the likes of Lovecraft, not having bad stuff happen to you was a matter of luck — such luck being, to Lovecraft, the “placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity” — and when the bad stuff did happen, it wasn’t because you’d done wrong, it was because it was just bound to happen eventually.

Lovecraft did have divine-seeming entities in his mythology, but they were only “divine” because they were so much more powerful than humans. They weren’t gods in the truly religious sense. They didn’t create the universe nor did they stand outside of it. Even when (as in At the Mountains of Madness) they took part in the creation of humankind, they didn’t do so out of divine benevolence, but because they were toying around with genetics, trying to create something useful to them, and mankind was a by-product. Their attitude to humanity was indifference, as was the universe’s. (And Lovecraft’s most god-like being, the “blind idiot god” Azathoth, is a cosmic force without intelligence, and certainly without any feelings toward, or awareness of, humanity.)

The closest thing Alien (till Ridley Scott came out with Prometheus, anyway) has to a divine force is the Weyland-Yutani corporation, who send the crew to find the xenomorph in the first place. But the corporation does this not out of any desire to punish the crew; it does it out of indifference. The crew just happens to be close, and is expendable. They’re a tool. Ash, the android who’s human in appearance but without human feeling, is the closest we get to an embodiment of the corporation on-screen. He’s detached, scientific, obedient, indifferent: 20th century corporate man.

The Furies are very much not indifferent. They’re roused by the need for vengeance, and their role is to hound someone — into madness if necessary — till they carry out that vengeance. In the Oresteia, they urge Orestes to kill his mother, Clytemnestra, for her murder of Agamemnon — her husband, and Orestes’s father — whom she murdered because Agamemnon killed their daughter. The point of the Oresteia, though, is that the Furies represent a primal, irrational, uncivil force, and obeying them only leads to more and more vengeance in a never-ending cycle. That primal force is replaced, at the end of the last play in the trilogy, by the civilising force of justice, where the need for vengeance can be answered, but also ended.

I’d say that the point about the xenomorph in Alien is that it embodies an even more primal force than the Furies: life reduced to its utter biological basics of reproduction and death. The Furies are roused by human emotion, and can be placated by human reason; the xenomorph belongs to the region of the “lizard brain” where reason does not apply, and must be fought entirely on its own terms.

You may think your cat loves you, but this is how he’ll look on while you’re attacked by a xenomorph — with mild, professional interest

Because Memory moves quickly, giving us snippets of its various arguments rather than anything extended, I don’t feel Dr Linn was given the full opportunity to present his xenomorph-as-Furies argument, so I feel bad arguing against it on such scanty evidence. At one point he does say that “Alien is the response to Prometheus trying to steal fire from the heavens”, which I take it isn’t a reference to Scott’s 2012 sequel, but the mythical figure. But is he saying the crew of the Nostromo are “stealing fire from the heavens”? If anyone is, it’s the Weyland-Yutani corporation, but it’s the crew who suffer the punishment.

(That line from the Oresteia, “The reek of human blood smiles out at me,” reminds me of the xenomorph-like demogorgon in the first season of Stranger Things, which is attracted by blood, and does, in many ways, act as a Fury — it’s the abused Eleven’s uncontrollable rage against a world that misused her, and which, at the end, threatens to consume her, too.)

Though I love the way Memory explores links between Alien’s xenomorph and ancient myth, I think Alien, and Lovecraftian horror-mythologies generally, represent something genuinely new that the 20th century brought to the cauldron of myth. Before that, whether the divine forces that governed our lives were vengeful, wrathful, hostile or benign, our mythologies depicted a universe alive with active, intelligent forces interested in human beings. The 20th century, and the strand of Lovecraftian cosmicism that leads up to Alien, introduced a wholly new element in which the universe was utterly indifferent to humankind, and anything good or bad that happened did so by chance. This is what I feel is the real power behind the xenomorph in Alien, and it was something that was only intensified (and further Lovecraftified) when Scott began working on his 21st-century sequels, starting with Prometheus. Although these later films address religious-level questions — who created us and why — they’re met with cosmic-horror answers, not the sort we’d get from the divinities of ancient myth.

Still, I liked Memory, which did a good job of exploring the thematic depths of Alien and the story of how it came to be made, and why it still feels so powerful. After the shower scene in Psycho and the chest-burster scene in Alien, what is the next iconic moment in cinema that Philippe is going to examine?