We Have Always Lived in the Castle: An Inside-Out Fairy Tale

Books discussed in this essay: We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Shirley Jackson; 1962). Spoilers galore.

Penguin Deluxe Classics edition.
Penguin Deluxe Classics edition.

We don’t usually think about how things got they way they are in the fairy tales and ghost stories we are most familiar with. The witches have always lived in their gingerbread houses deep in the woods. The restless spirits have always haunted their ruined castles. In We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Jackson tells us about the time before the fairy tale begins. She takes us into the haunted castle before it becomes a ruin, before children dare each other to go up on the vine-covered porch and possibly disturb the ghosts inside.

Still, even this story starts with a legend. Six years before the story begins, the Blackwood family sat down to dinner. By dessert, most of them were dead of arsenic poisoning. The arsenic had been put in the sugar bowl. Only the eldest daughter, Constance, her younger sister, Mary Katherine (or Merricat), and their uncle Julian survived. Julian, however, was crippled and suffered ever after from dementia and an obsession with that “last night.” Constance was accused of the crime, but acquitted due to insufficient evidence. She returned home to take care of her sister and uncle, and the three of them kept the house unchanged, stopped in time, stuffed with the remnants of the dead.

The local villagers–and there always is some unnamed village in these stories–had convicted Constance of the crime in their hearts. Indeed, the locals always hated the Blackwoods, who were wealthy and aloof and strange. Merricat in particular suffered their taunts and ostracization whenever she went into the village for food and library books. The children had even made up a rhyme to torment her.

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!

We Have Always Lived in the Castle exists in the unreal world of the fairy tale. The Blackwood sisters live on the edge of a wood. The path through it is barred to the villagers by locked gates. Like witches, the girls keep a familiar, a black cat. They know the names and uses of all the wild herbs and mushrooms, especially the poisonous ones. Constance is constantly in her kitchen, baking gingerbread, stirring a bubbling cauldron of soup.

Detail from Popular Library cover.
Detail from Popular Library cover.

While there are no supernatural elements in the story, it is suffused with an atmosphere of magic. Merricat speaks words of power, nails talismans to trees, and buries significant items to ward off evil–meaning the outside world. Perhaps her magic really works. By the end of the story, her barriers successfully keep she and her sister safe in their isolated house, where no one can reach them.

But before that end, a change must come, one that Merricat senses even before it arrives, forewarned by bad omens. That change is the arrival of their cousin, Charles. Merricat sees Charles as a ghost or demon, a grotesque caricature of their dead father returned to life. In reality, he is nothing more than an ordinary man, boorish and greedy, and like many men, he gets offended when everyone does not fall in line with his notions of how the world should be. The witches are not the monstrous ones in this inside-out fairy tale–the normal people are.

Back detail of Penguin Deluxe Classics cover.
Back detail of Penguin Deluxe Classics cover.

Jackson channels some of Frankenstein as well, when Charles’s arrival sets in motion a chain of events climaxing in an enraged mob of villagers attacking the Blackwood house and driving the two girls into the woods. But unlike Frankenstein’s monster, the Blackwood sisters embrace their differences and their consequent isolation from the world. They come to call the people outside “strangers”; the monsters are outside the walls, not in.

This is a ghost story told from the inside out. By the end, the Blackwood sisters, still alive, are nonetheless haunting their ruined house: “Our house was a castle, turreted and open to the sky.” Parents tell their children stories about the sister-spectres, how they capture and eat naughty children. Offerings are left as baskets of food, a la “Red Riding Hood,” to appease the spirits.

We readers know that the two sisters have not always lived in the castle, that indeed the castle was once just a house. But by the end, we come to believe they will always live there, just like the old fairy tales and ghost stories live on in retelling after retelling.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a short, tight novel, not a word of its 130 pages wasted. It was Jackson’s final novel, and many believe that it was her masterpiece. While it echoes those old stories we know by heart, this is a story we’ve never heard before, at least not told in this way.

moon_color_flat-8971Is there an attraction in the “happily ever after” ending, the idea of walling oneself up away from the world? Surely there must have been for Jackson, who toward the end of her life became an agoraphobe and didn’t leave her bedroom for several months. Sometimes there is for me as well, when I am confronted in my morning newspaper with the banal evil that human beings are capable of. No wonder Constance and Merricat are happy. How nice it must be to live in the fairy tale, to be the ghosts in the story, to have found the way to the moon.

Further reading: “The Witchcraft of Shirley Jackson” by Joyce Carol Oates; “Shirley Jackson: Delight in What I Fear” at DarkEcho

Haunted Houses to Visit: A Reading List for Halloween

71-xokziKRLStephen King said in Danse Macabre, his 1981 survey of horror fiction, that The Turn of the Screw (Henry James; 1898) and The Haunting of Hill House (Shirley Jackson; 1959) were the only two “great novels of the supernatural in the last hundred years.” If you have already read those two books, though, and noted how the second is a direct descendant of the first, where should you venture next in the haunted house genre?

You could turn to the descendants of Hill House. The similarity of the title of Richard Matheson’s Hell House (1971) is no coincidence. The general plot–four psychic researchers investigate a haunted house–is essentially the same. The ambiguity of Jackson’s novel dissatisfied Matheson, and Hell House is his response. Stephen King’s own Carrie White (Carrie; 1974) is another descendant. Carrie’s childhood, like Eleanor’s, featured an unexplained shower of stones, and she also had a troubled relationship with her mother (to say the least). While there is no haunted house in that story, Carrie’s home is creepy enough to satisfy on that score. It’s no surprise that Hill House’s influence on King was strong, considering his high esteem of the novel. It’s not a stretch to claim that Hill House laid the foundations for both of the terrifying buildings in Carrie’s follow-ups: the Marsten House in ‘Salem’s Lot (1975) and the infamous Overlook Hotel in The Shining (1977). The Shining, for my money, wins the “what’s the scariest book ever written” parlor game, but Hill House follows at a close second.

watersMoving a little later in time, we have plenty of haunted houses to choose from, all owing something to Jackson, certainly, but still offering a unique perspective to the genre. The House Next Door (Anne Rivers Siddons; 1978) features a modern, newly built haunted house with an equally ambiguous source of the haunting. The Woman in Black  (Susan Hill; 1983) is a short novel as imprecisely placed in time as Hill House is in location. It introduces Eel Marsh House, a brooding gothic mansion on the edge of a treacherous moor. The house in The Little Stranger (Sarah Waters; 2009)  is a dilapidated mansion that represents the decline of the British upper class after World War II, with yet another ambiguous haunting placing it squarely in line with its precedents.

515z5W8kjtLLeading us to others, as yet unread: The Red Tree (Caitlin R. Kiernan; 2009); The Unseen (Alexandra Sokoloff; 2009); White Is for Witching (Helen Oyeyemi; 2009)–2009 was a very good year for haunted houses, it seems. We might expect to become bored with the premise after all this, but betrayal by the structures we have built to shelter and protect us continues to fascinate and terrify us. Rooms (Lauren Oliver; 2014) is a recent haunted house read, which delves into the minds of the ghosts who have merged with the rundown old house they inhabit. The gloomy, gothic haunted house might be an old chestnut, but it keeps on exciting our imaginations.

Happy Halloween!

The Haunting of Hill House: A Love Story?

Books discussed in this essay: The Haunting of Hill House (Shirley Jackson; 1959); We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Jackson; 1962); The Sundial (Jackson; 1958). Slight spoilers for Hill House.

Journeys end in lovers meeting.

51eCg0PJc6L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_This line from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night plays a constant refrain in the mind of Eleanor, the protagonist of Shirley Jackson’s ghost story masterpiece, The Haunting of Hill House. The thought is first prompted not by meeting one of her fellow haunted-house researchers, but by seeing Hill House itself. A lot of the horror of Hill House stems from how the house seduces Eleanor into falling in love with it, by writing her name on the wall, caressing her, whispering to her, even–in one of the most memorable and scariest scenes–holding her hand in the dark.

Hill House belongs to me.

Shirley Jackson seems to have been obsessed with houses, so much so that she featured memorable mansions in her three best-known novels: The Haunting of Hill House, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and The Sundial. The houses are primary characters in each book, with a distinct personality and perhaps even desires–but nowhere so overtly as in The Haunting of Hill House.

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.

haunting2_large
Hill House as imagined in the film The Haunting.

Two stories about Jackson’s research for Hill House may be too good to be true. When she was searching for houses to serve as the model for Hill House, she found a photo of a suitably haunted-looking one in a magazine article. Since this house was located in California, Jackson asked her mother, who lived there, to find out more about it. The house turned out to have been built by Jackson’s own great-great-grandfather, a San Francisco architect.

Within, its 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.

Also, Jackson and her husband went to New York for a weekend away and passed a house that so terrified Jackson, she couldn’t enjoy herself. She insisted on returning at night–“in the night, in the dark,” as Mrs. Dudley would say–so that she wouldn’t have to see the house again. Later, she asked a friend to find out more about the house and discovered that nine people had died there in a fire, leaving basically only a shell of a house behind, which was what Jackson saw.

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.

ED-AK419_jackso_DV_20091028223410Whether these stories were true or embellished by Jackson, the writer, I don’t know, nor do I care much. They lend a mystique to the legend of Hill House, now generally considered one of the best–if not the best–haunted house stories ever written. Perhaps Hill House itself exists somewhere–Jackson never identifies its location in the novel–and we might stumble upon it by accident sometime. If we do see it, will it inspire love or fear? Or that most delicious of emotions, a mixture of both?

O Mistress mine, where are you roaming?
O stay and hear! your true-love’s coming
That can sing both high and low;
Trip no further, pretty sweeting,
Journeys end in lovers’ meeting—
Every wise man’s son doth know.

What is love? ’tis not hereafter;
Present mirth hath present laughter;
What’s to come is still unsure:
In delay there lies no plenty,—
Then come kiss me, Sweet-and-twenty,
Youth’s a stuff will not endure.

–Feste, Twelfth Night

Gothic horror: We’re all mad here

Books discussed in this essay: American Gothic Tales (edited by Joyce Carol Oates; 1996). Also see the reading list at the end of the essay.

I was recently reading an anthology of American gothic tales, spanning from the 18th century to contemporary writing. It was a good collection of stories, all suitably weird or creepy, but aside from the earliest stories, I wasn’t sure that they all truly qualified as “gothic.” That got me to thinking about what gothic means exactly and why it is my favorite sub-genre of horror.

02133255b81d234fe909022ed7ae73a8Gothic literature has been around since at least the mid-1700s, and there are a lot of definitions of the term gothic. But academic classifications don’t get at why gothic continues to appeal, why we keep writing and reading gothic stories. The earliest gothic fiction, by authors like Ann Radcliffe and Horace Walpole, were by their very nature melodramatic and unrealistic; they made an easy target for parody, such as what Jane Austen does so skillfully in Northanger Abbey, but they set the stage for two-and-a-half centuries of great writing by such diverse authors as Mary Shelley, Charlotte and Emily Bronte, Rebecca du Maurier, Shirley Jackson, Flannery O’Connor, Joyce Carol Oates, and Anne Rice (yes, I’m leaving out the guys, of which there are many, but this is a site about horror by women).

A story has to have three essential ingredients for me to consider it truly gothic.

The first ingredient is by necessity an element of the uncanny. Gothic literature is concerned with the thin spaces, such as between the material and nonmaterial worlds, or between life and death–even the gaps between universes. What lurks in those spaces we don’t know and can’t comprehend. Spirits haunt this realm; supernatural beings lurk in the corners; madness lies within. This is not the place for shiny glass and steel skyscrapers; there are no spaceships or computers here. Gothic fiction stands in opposition to science fiction–it’s about what we cannot know rather than what we can discover, and it has a marked sense of fatalism as opposed to optimism. Neither is it the realm of realistic fiction, of suburbs and apartment buildings and cocktail parties. Gothic fiction eschews everyday experience for the extraordinary, the bizarre and grotesque. It explores ideas and themes which reveal that the universe is a vaster space than we can ever hope to understand.

goreyNext, gothic fiction is linked inextricably with nature. By “nature,” I don’t mean the sunny, flowering, tamed outdoors where we like to have picnics. Rather, the nature of the gothic landscape is wild, implacable, indifferent to our needs and desires, and uncontrollable despite our best efforts. Nature is always encroaching on the human world; that’s why buildings in gothic stories are usually ancient, crumbling, and moldering, and gardens are overgrown; they are constantly threatened with being overtaken by nature. When people enter natural spaces in gothic stories, they find themselves in treacherous, menacing environments: tangled forests, fetid swamps, windswept moors, craggy peaks, bottomless black lakes. The weather is also hostile; usually, it’s foggy or snowing, or a storm is raging. Animals are mysterious, feral, imbued with unsuspected powers.

The natural aspect of gothic fiction reflects the dark region inside our own psyches, as we too are a part of nature, even though we frequently strive to deny it. This is the final ingredient. Gothic literature delves into our depths to disclose the darkness within: the acts we believe ourselves incapable of, the feelings we hope to bury and ignore. It subverts our pretense to civilization and reminds us that we are all susceptible to death and decay, that there is no escaping it. In gothic literature, our inner human nature, like the natural world itself, is uncontrollable and governed by forces we cannot fully comprehend. In gothic fiction, the prevailing emotion is fear, and that quite often leads to madness. Trying to look what we can’t comprehend square in the face is enough to drive anyone insane.

In the gothic worldview, humankind is incapable of complete understanding of the universe; we’re just fooling ourselves if we think we can know or discover everything. The real truth is that we are a very insignificant part of a vast, indifferent universe, a truth that, once acknowledged, might drive you insane. Or it might just set you free.

VMXrkv9

Gothic horror by women–required reading:

  • The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe
  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
  • Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  • “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  • A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories by Flannery O’Connor
  • The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
  • We Who Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
  • The Sundial by Shirley Jackson
  • Bellefleur by Joyce Carol Oates
  • Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice
  • The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
  • The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

 

Shelley’s Daughters

Content is coming soon. Please read about this blog to get an idea of what I’ll be posting here. Also take a gander at my reading list–it’s ambitious!

In the meantime, check out Shelley’s Daughters, a roundup of contemporary horror by women in the New York Times book review that inspired my reading and, in part, this blog.

Or go classic by exploring the works of Daphne du Maurier, Patricia Highsmith, or Shirley Jackson. Penguin Classics has reprinted wonderful editions of many of Jackson’s novels–that should get you started!

9780143039976