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

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