Jonathan Lethem: Why Shirley Jackson is a Reader’s Writer
On the Brilliance of We Have Always Lived in the Castle and the Intimacy of Everyday Evil
Ten and twenty years ago I used to play a minor parlor trick; I wonder if it would still work. When asked my favorite writer, I’d say “Shirley Jackson,” counting on most questioners to say they’d never heard of her. At that I’d reply, with as much smugness as I could muster: “You’ve read her.” When my interlocutor expressed skepticism, I’d describe “The Lottery”—still the most widely anthologized American short story of all time, I’d bet, and certainly the most controversial, and censored, story ever to debut in The New Yorker—counting seconds to the inevitable widening of my victim’s eyes: they’d not only read it, they could never forget it. I’d then happily take credit as a mind reader, though the trick was too easy by far. I don’t think it ever failed.
Jackson is one of American ﬁction’s impossible presences, too material to be called a phantom in literature’s house, too in-print to be “rediscovered,” yet hidden in plain sight. She’s both perpetually underrated and persistently mischaracterized as a writer of upscale horror, when in truth a slim minority of her works had any element of the supernatural (Henry James wrote more ghost stories). While celebrated by reviewers throughout her career, she wasn’t welcomed into any canon or school; she’s been no major critic’s fetish.
Sterling in her craft, Jackson is prized by the writers who read her, yet it would be self-congratulatory to claim her as a writer’s writer. Rather, Shirley Jackson has thrived, at publication and since, as a reader’s writer. Her most famous works—“The Lottery” and The Haunting of Hill House—are more famous than her name, and have sunk into cultural memory as timeless artifacts, seeming older than they are, with the resonance of myth or archetype. The same aura of folkloric familiarity attaches to less-celebrated writing: the stories “Charles” and “One Ordinary Day, With Peanuts” (you’ve read one of these two tales, though you may not know it), and her last novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
Though she teased at explanations of sorcery in both her life and in her art (an early dust-ﬂap biography called her “a practicing amateur witch,” and she seems never to have shaken the effects of this debatable publicity strategy), Jackson’s great subject was precisely the opposite of paranormality. The relentless, undeniable core of her writing—her six completed novels and the 20-odd ﬁercest of her stories—conveys a vast intimacy with everyday evil, with the pathological undertones of prosaic human conﬁgurations: a village, a family, a self. She disinterred the wickedness in normality, cataloging the ways conformity and repression tip into psychosis, persecution, and paranoia, into cruelty and its masochistic, injury-cherishing twin.
Like Alfred Hitchcock and Patricia Highsmith, Jackson’s keynotes were complicity and denial, and the strange ﬂuidity of guilt as it passes from one person to another. Her work provides an encyclopedia of such states, and has the capacity to instill a sensation of collusion in her readers, whether they like it or not. This reached a pitch, of course, in outraged reactions to “The Lottery”: the bags of hate mail denouncing the story as “nauseating,” “perverted,” and “vicious,” the cancelled subscriptions, the warnings to Jackson never to visit Canada.
Having announced her theme—Jackson’s ﬁrst novel, The Road Through the Wall, ﬁnished just prior to “The Lottery,” is a coruscating expose of suburban wickedness—Jackson devoted herself to burrowing deeper inside the feelings that appalled her, to exploring them from within. Jackson’s biographer, Judy Oppenheimer, tells how in the last part of Jackson’s too-brief life the author succumbed almost entirely to crippling doubt and fear, and in particular to a squalid, unreasonable agoraphobia—a sort of horrible parody of the full-time homemaker’s role she’d assumed both in her life and in her cheery, proto-Erma Bombeckian bestsellers Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons. However painful her ﬁnal decade, though, her work enlarges as it descends, from the sly authority of “The Lottery,” into moral ambiguity, emotional unease, and self-examination. The novels and stories grow steadily more eccentric and subjective, and funnier, climaxing in We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which I think is her masterpiece.
“The Lottery” and Castle are intertwined by the motif of small-town New England persecution; the town, in both instances, is pretty well recognizable as North Bennington, Vermont. Jackson lived there most of her adult life, the faculty wife of literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, who taught at nearby Bennington College. Jackson was in many senses already two people when she arrived in Vermont. The ﬁrst was a fearful ugly duckling, cowed by the severity of her upbringing by a suburban mother obsessed with propriety. This half of Jackson was a character she brought brilliantly to life in her stories and novels from the beginning: the shy girl, whose identity slips all too easily from its foundations.
The other half of Jackson was the expulsive iconoclast, brought out of her shell by her marriage to Hyman—himself a garrulous egoist, typical of his generation of Jewish 50s New York intellectuals—and by the visceral shock of mothering a quartet of noisy, demanding babies. This was the Shirley Jackson that the town feared, resented and, depending on whose version you believe, occasionally persecuted. For it was her fate, as an eccentric newcomer in a staid, insular village, to absorb the reﬂexive anti-Semitism and anti-intellectualism felt by the townspeople toward the college.
The hostility of the villagers helped shape Jackson’s art, a process that eventually redoubled, so that the latter fed the former. After the success-de-scandal of “The Lottery” a legend arose in town, almost certainly false, that Jackson had been pelted with stones by schoolchildren one day, then gone home and written the story. (Full disclosure: I lived in North Bennington for a few years in the early 80s, and some of the local ﬁgures Jackson had contended with 20 years before were still hanging around the town square where the legendary lottery took place.)
In Castle, Jackson revisits persecution with force and a certain amount of glee, decanting it from the realm of objective social critique into personal fable. In a strategy she’d been perfecting since the very start of her writing, that of splitting her aspects among several characters in the same story, Jackson delegates the halves of her psyche into two odd, damaged sisters: the older Constance Blackwood, hypersensitive and afraid, unable to leave the house; and the younger Merricat Blackwood, a willful demon prankster attuned to nature, to the rhythm of the seasons, and to death, and the clear culprit in the unsolved crime of having poisoned all the remaining members of the Blackwood family (apart from Uncle Julian).
The three survivors—Constance, Merricat, and the frail and daft Uncle Julian—dwell together in their grand house at the town’s periphery, rehearsing past trauma and fending off change and self-knowledge. Constance cooks and cleans in a kind of time-struck ritual observance of the missing family’s existence, while Merricat makes her magical forays into the woods and her embattled shopping trips into the center of town, there to contend with the creepy mockery of the village children, who propagate the family history of poisoning as a singsong schoolyard legend.
Uncle Julian, dependent on Constance’s care, putters at a manuscript, a family history, in an attempt to make sense of the rupture that has so depopulated his little world. Julian’s a kind of reader’s surrogate, framing questions (“Why was the arsenic not put into the rarebit?”) and offering thematic speculations (“My niece is not hard-hearted; besides, she thought at the time that I was among them and although I deserve to die—we all do, do we not?—I hardly think that my niece is the one to point it out.”) that frame our curiosity about the events that Merricat, our narrator, seems so particularly eager to dismiss.
Merricat’s voice—ingenuous, deﬁant, and razor-alert—is the book’s triumph, and the river along which this little fable of merry disintegration ﬂows. Despite declaring her 18 years in the ﬁrst paragraph, Merricat feels younger, her voice a kind of cousin to Frankie’s in Carson McCuller’s The Member of the Wedding, or Mattie’s in Charles Portis’s True Grit: an archetype of the feral, presexual tomboy. Merricat is far more disturbing, though, precisely for being a grown woman; what’s sublimated in her won’t be resolved by adolescence. Indeed, typically for Jackson, sexuality is barely present in the book and, needless to say, sexuality is therefore everywhere in its absence.
The story is a frieze disturbed. Merricat has stilled her family, nailed them like a book to a tree, forever to be unread. When Cousin Charles arrives, transparently in search of the Blackwoods’ hidden fortune (though like everything else in the book, the money’s a purloined letter, secreted in full view), he brings a ripple of disturbance that his cynical mission doesn’t fully account for. Uncle Julian leads us to the brink of speculation when he mentions their ages: Cousin Charles is 32, and Constance is 28. No one—certainly least of all Merricat—will say that Constance is a kind of Emily Dickinson, drowning sexual yearning in her meticulous housework, and in sheltering her damaged uncle and dangerous sister, but certainly that is the risk that Charles truly represents: the male principle. (Uncle Julian is deﬁnitively emasculated, possibly gay—certainly it was his harmlessness that permitted his survival of the poisoning.)
Merricat, an exponent of sympathetic magic, attacks this risk of nature’s taking its course by confronting it with nature’s raw, prehuman elements: ﬁrst by scattering soil and leaves in Charles’s bed, and then by starting a ﬁre: better to incinerate the female stronghold than allow it to be invaded. It’s a cinch to excavate a Freudian subtext in the scene of the ﬁremen arriving at the house (“the men stepping across our doorsill, dragging their hoses, bringing ﬁlth and confusion and danger into our house,” “the big men pushing in,” “the dark men going in and out of our front door”)—just as easy as to do the same with the prose of Henry James.
From the Oppenheimer biography we know Shirley Jackson objected very strictly to this sort of interpretation, as James surely would have, and as we likely ought to on their behalf. The point isn’t that this material isn’t embedded in Jackson’s narrative; the point is that its embedding is in the nature of an instinctive allusiveness and complexity, forming one layer among many, and that to trumpet such an interpretation as a master key to material so nuanced would be to betray the full operation of its ambiguity. Sex is hardly the only sublimated subject here. Consider that great American taboo, class status: in “The Lottery” undertones of class contempt were coolly objectiﬁed, in Castle the imperious, eccentric Blackwoods are conscious of their snobbery toward the village, and conscious, too, of how the persecution they suffer conﬁrms their elevated self-image.
This double confession of culpability is typical of the snares in Jackson’s design: for many of her characters, to revel in injury is a form of exultation, and to suffer exile from drably conformist groups—or families—is not only an implicit moral victory, but a form of bohemian one-upmanship as well: we have always lived in the (out)castle, and we wouldn’t want it any other way. Jackson, a famous mother and a tormented daughter, also encoded in her novel an unresolved argument about child-rearing. When at the height of her crisis Merricat retreats to the summer house and imaginatively repopulates the family table with her murdered parents, they indulge her: “Mary Katherine should have anything she wants, my dear. Our most loved daughter must have anything she likes… Mary Katherine is never to be punished… Mary Katherine must be guarded and cherished. Thomas, give you sister your dinner; she would like more to eat… bow all your heads to our adored Mary Katherine.”
The terror of the scene is intricate, for we suspect these fantasies are as much recreations as revisions of past reality. Elsewhere Uncle Julian muses aloud about whether Merricat has been too utterly adored to develop a conscience. The motif links Castle to the midcentury’s crypto-feminist wave of child-as-devil tales The Bad Seed and Rosemary’s Baby, and to the sister-horror ﬁlm Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? But Jackson’s book is The Bad Seed as rewritten by Pinter or Beckett—indeed, Jackson’s vision of human life as a kind of squatter’s inheritance in a diminishing castle recalls the before-and-after of the two acts of Happy Days, where Beckett’s Winnie, ﬁrst buried up to her waist, and then to her neck, boasts: “This is what I ﬁnd so wonderful. The way man adapts himself. To changing conditions.”
As Constance and Merricat’s world shrinks it grows more deﬁantly self-possessed, and as threatening elements are purged their castle gains in representative accuracy as a model of the (dual) self. When at last the villagers repent of their cruelty and begin gifting the castle’s doorstep with cooked meals and baked goods, the situation mirrors that of Merricat’s playacting in the summerhouse—only this time the offerings laid at her feet are real, not imaginary. The world has obliged, and placed a crown on Merricat’s head. Her empire is stasis.
Excerpted from We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. Used with the permission of the publisher, Penguin Classics, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Introduction copyright © 2006 by Jonathan Lethem.