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 Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

The opening paragraph of Shirley Jackson’s haunted house novel is so good, everyone who writes about the book is statutorily obliged to quote it:

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

It’s that “not sane” that, for me, delivers the killer blow. Hill House isn’t insane. Insane is a technical term, a doctor’s diagnosis — a dismissal, and a pretence at understanding. “Not sane”, though, sounds like it has found a whole new way of being. It sounds like something we don’t know, and never can.

This is one of the great strengths of Shirley Jackson’s novel. After the pioneering days of the 1890s greats which found new ways to talk about the darkness that lurks in the human psyche — Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, Dorian Gray, The Turn of the Screw, Dracula — the ghost story was effectively neutered by Freud and other psychoanalysts, who taxonomised and rubber-stamped all those areas of inner darkness. They were “understood”. What Shirley Jackson does in The Haunting of Hill House is write a ghost story that, far from being disempowered by the ideas of Freud and co., gains new power because of them, then goes on to transcend them. “No,” it seems to say, “you don’t understand.”

The Haunting of Hill House coverHill House begins with Dr John Montague, inspired by “the intrepid nineteenth-century ghost hunters”, deciding to carry out a proper scientific investigation of a genuinely haunted house. Having selected Hill House as his subject, he invites as many people with even the slightest hint of psychic ability as he can find to join him in a three-month stay. Two turn up — timid Eleanor Vance and sophisticated Theodora (so individualistic she only needs a first name) — and, together with Luke Sanderson, a representative from the owning family (who don’t live at the house), the quartet take up residence towards the end of June 1956.

Eleanor is only recently free of 11 years caring for her mother, a period of “small guilts and small reproaches, constant weariness and unending despair.” Reduced, now, to sleeping in a cot in the baby’s room at her married sister’s — who, along with her husband, talk about Eleanor in front of her as though she wasn’t there, and make decisions for her as though she were a child — when she receives Dr Montague’s invitation, she accepts because, at that point, she “would have gone anywhere”. She’s 32 years old and “Nothing of the least importance has ever belonged to me”. On the drive to Hill House, she fantasises about how this is the first day of the sort of life everybody else has been enjoying all this time and which she, at last, is now going to have too. “Journeys end in lovers meeting,” she keeps telling herself. And then she sees the house where she is to stay:

“The house was vile. She shivered and thought, the words coming freely into her mind, Hill House is vile, it is diseased; get away from here at once.”

But she doesn’t get away. She has no other chance at life but this.

The genius of Jackson’s novel comes from how the hauntings, when they begin, fit so perfectly with Eleanor’s fragile psyche. As an adolescent, shortly after the disappearance of her father, Eleanor seems to have produced a brief bout of poltergeist activity, hence her invitation to Dr Montague’s ghost-hunting party. So, when the increasingly insistent phenomena of Hill House begin to present themselves, it’s possible to see them as coming from Eleanor’s own pent-up frustrations, unconscious needs and self-persecutions. The night-time knocking at doors could be a reminder of Eleanor’s mother’s death (she later admits she heard her mother knocking on her bedroom wall, but refused to go to her); the chalk message that appears on a wall — “HELP ELEANOR COME HOME” — could be Eleanor’s need to make herself the long-denied centre of attention in this new circle of friends; the next message (in blood, on Theodora’s door) and the attack on Theodora’s clothes could be Eleanor’s unconscious aggression towards Theodora for suggesting Eleanor wrote that first message herself, as well as being a ploy to make Theo move into her own room, to own this new friend all the more.

Equally, these phenomena could be read as the intensely malignant, abominably wise Hill House manipulating Eleanor in the subtlest of ways. By naming Eleanor in that first message, it isolates her from the others, and starts to make her realise that the only true friend she has is the house itself. By attacking Theodora’s room and forcing Theo to wear Eleanor’s clothes, the house could be playing with Eleanor’s fragile sense of identity, making her seem less and less needed as she sees how Theo continues to shine, even in Nell’s drab clothes. Eleanor begins increasingly to haunt the others, listening unseen to their conversations, hungry to hear herself mentioned (which she never is). She’s halfway to being a ghost already.

That initial message — “HELP ELEANOR COME HOME” — is itself wonderfully ambiguous. Is this a cry from Eleanor’s dead mother’s spirit, warning her away from Hill House, or is it a cry from the house itself, inviting Eleanor to become a fuller part of it? What does “COMING HOME” mean? Leaving Hill House, or being part of it forever?

Jackson’s characters — and Jackson herself — are part of a generation that would have grown up with the ideas of Freud, have become cynically used to questioning their own motives and reading their unconscious slips as the symptoms of a Freudian psyche, chock full of childhood anxieties, veiled narcissisms, hostilities and frustrations. The nonsensical, self-conscious fantasising of the main trio’s banter sounds simultaneously like an attempt to not admit how scared they are, while also acting as the perfect word-association-style carrier for letting out unconscious fantasies and frustrations, for fencing with one another and judging one another without having to admit that’s what they’re doing. In the end, it’s nothing but nonsensical babbling compared to the vast unknowability of un-sane Hill House.

At the book’s conclusion, two details from that superlative first paragraph magnify the horror, despite the ambiguity over whether it’s Eleanor’s troubled psyche playing out its most dangerous impulses, or Hill House as a real and active supernatural force.

The first is the idea that what drove Hill House “not sane” are “conditions of absolute reality”. What’s going on here is not contact with a removed and abstract netherworld, but something far more real than our everyday lives, too real to be faced. At one point, Dr Montague says: “I think we are only afraid of ourselves,” to which Luke says, “No… of seeing ourselves clearly and without disguise.” Is this, then, what happens to Eleanor? Hill House’s “masterpiece of architectural misdirection” so perfectly mirrors her own disordered psyche that it brings it out for her to see, in all its nasty, infantile purity? And, faced with this horrific but unavoidable self-judgement, she has only one course open to her.

Then there’s that phrase: “whatever walked there, walked alone.” It’s repeated at the end of the novel, and it seems to add a further twist to Eleanor’s inevitable fate. Because we know, by then, that Eleanor has come to feel that joining with Hill House might be joining with “HOME”, might be a kind of belonging, even if it is of a twisted kind. But that final phrase — “whatever walked there, walked alone” — implies that she never achieves any sort of belonging. Perhaps she dies completely, victim of a Hill House that continues to exist alone in its isolated malignancy; perhaps she finds herself a ghost in Hill House, but just as isolated as before; worse, perhaps even in the afterlife Hill House continues to play its psychological games with her, keeping her unbalanced, isolated, afraid; or perhaps it absorbs Eleanor into itself, overpowering what little precious individuality she once had.

Jackson’s novel — like Aickman’s “Strange Stories”, which belong to the same era — escaped the fate of early 20th century ghost stories by confronting and transcending the new psychoanalytical thinking about the darkness that lurks within. By doing so, Jackson regained, for the supernatural tale, the power to depict that inner darkness with so much more force than any mere technical jargon ever could. Freudian terminology, overused and “understood”, quickly ceases to capture the very powerful, and highly dramatic reality of what lurks within the depths of the human psyche. In The Haunting of Hill House, Jackson restores the ghost story’s power to terrify, overwhelm and overpower; she restores its ambiguity and deceptiveness, the way it can play with us and prove that, far from us “knowing” it, it in fact knows us — and all our weaknesses — which it can then proceed to prey on mercilessly.

Dark Tales by Shirley Jackson

jackson_darktalesThere’s an intense ambivalence about the idea of ‘home’ in these tales by Shirley Jackson. On the one hand, home is a longed-for refuge from a harsh outside world; on the other, it’s a trap the protagonists want to escape from.

In ‘The Bus’, for instance, an old spinster is making her way home by bus, though she hates the journey and finds both the ticket-seller and the driver rude. All she wants is to get home, away from all the difficulty and unpleasantness. She falls asleep en route, then suddenly the driver’s telling her it’s her stop. Ushered off, only half awake, she finds herself abandoned at an isolated crossroads in the pouring rain, with no one around to help, and that’s just the start of her troubles. In ‘Paranoia’, a man is on his way home from work when he becomes convinced there’s a conspiracy of people following him, and is driven to increasingly desperate means of shaking them off. In both cases, home is an ever-receding goal, a constantly denied refuge from a threatening, irrational world.

In contrast to the nightmare journey home is the idea of home as a trap. In ‘The Good Wife’, a husband keeps his wife locked in her bedroom till she confesses to an affair that he himself may have invented as an excuse to keep her incarcerated. In ‘The Story We Used To Tell’, perhaps the strangest story in the book, a woman is staying at a female friend’s house when the friend disappears. The woman sees the friend trapped in a picture (an old painting of the friend’s house) on the friend’s bedroom wall and, touching it, is herself sucked into it. The two women find themselves stuck in a portrait version of the house with a pair of the friend’s ancestors, who seem to have been driven mad by being held in the painting for so long.

shirleyjacksonMarriage, an intrinsic part of the idea of ‘home’, often takes a murderous turn in these tales. The purest example of this is ‘What A Thought’, in which a happily married wife has the sudden, irrational urge to bash her husband’s head in with an ashtray. The trouble is, once she’s thought it, there’s only one way to get rid of the idea… In ‘The Honeymoon of Mrs Smith’, all the townsfolk seem desperately keen to say something to the newly-married Mrs Smith, but can’t bring themselves to do so. Finally, the landlady where she’s staying for her honeymoon sums up the courage to suggest Mrs Smith’s husband looks uncomfortably like a man whose photo has been in the papers for marrying, then murdering, young women for the insurance payout. But, oddly, the new Mrs Smith isn’t at all concerned…

Shirley Jackson’s version of a happy marriage is at the heart of what, for me, is the best story in the book, ‘The Beautiful Stranger’. Here, a wife goes to the railway station to meet her husband who’s returning from a sales trip. Just before he left, they’d argued, but when he gets off the train, the wife is surprised by how courteous and polite he is. She begins to suspect he may not be her husband at all, and he keeps giving her conspiratorial smiles, as though to say he knows she knows he isn’t. She’s delighted. Because of this frisson of strangeness and unfamiliarity, of politeness and kindness, it’s a whole lot better than with her ‘old’ husband. But then, taking a walk by herself one evening, she returns to the street where she lives to find she can’t tell which house is hers. It’s as though a blissful home life can only be sustained in a narrow band of mild alienation, but she’s passed irrecoverably through that to something far more isolating, and now everything’s lost. This tale is the perfect example of what Jack Sullivan says of Jackson in The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural:

‘Reversing M R James’s dictum that a ghost story should leave a narrow “loophole” for a natural explanation, Jackson wrote stories of psychological anguish than leave a loophole for a supernatural explanation.’

Community, like marriage, is a wider extension of the idea of ‘home’, and, as you’d expect from the author of ‘The Lottery’ (not included in this book), there are a number of tales of poisonous communities, here. 71-year-old Miss Adela Strangeworth in ‘The Possibility of Evil’ is very much a community insider, so much a part of her small-town’s life that everyone knows her and she knows everyone, right down to their darkest secrets, which she writes to them about in anonymous, hurtful letters. Ethel Stone in ‘Home’, on the other hand, has just moved into a countryside town and is doing her best to fit in. She’s amused by how the shopkeepers warn her off using a certain road in the rain. Thinking they’re simply concerned about the state of the road, she uses it anyway, and on the way sees an old woman and a young boy (in pyjamas) by the roadside. She insists on giving them a lift, and is a little puzzled that they want to go to ‘the Sanderson Place’, as that’s where she lives. She drives off with them in the back, but when she gets to her new home, they’ve disappeared. She soon learns they’re a pair of local ghosts. At first she’s thrilled. Having her own story to tell about a local legend will be her ticket to feeling part of the community. But on her way into town the next day, she has a second encounter that leaves her unable to speak about them, and it’s only at this point — now she has a shared secret she can’t speak of — that she finds herself being treated as a true local. Dark secrets, for Shirley Jackson, are what binds a community together, just as marriage is as much made of murderous impulses as it is of love.

The Haunting of Hill House coverNot all the stories in Dark Tales worked for me as stories, though those that didn’t, those whose hanging endings were a little too ambiguous for my tastes, do still work as nightmares. And they throw a good deal of light on the one Jackson work I know well. The Haunting of Hill House seems the perfect summation of all these wildly ambivalent feelings about the idea of ‘home’ as both a horrific trap and a longed-for refuge from a difficult world. Jackson’s prose style — unadorned and straightforward, deliciously precise — is the perfect representation of a world in which dark, unspoken impulses are waiting to break suddenly and violently through an apparently placid, well-ordered surface. The thing that perhaps adds that thrilling jolt to these tales is how much that breaking-through is, however horrific, longed for.