The Deep, Dark Genius of Shirley Jackson
Dale Peck Revisits Her Novel, 'We Have Always Lived in the Castle'
Twenty-five years ago, the wonderful literary magazine, Conjunctions, was born. Fifty years ago, the master of the dark American fable, Shirley Jackson, died. To honor both, we’re pleased to give you Dale Peck’s deeply felt appreciation of Jackson’s unheralded novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The following essay first appeared in Conjunctions’ 1997 special issue, “Tributes,” now available as an e-book from Open Road Media.
I first discovered Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle in my high school library. “Discovered” seems a grand word for the experience: the library in Buhler High School was hardly a place where one “discovered” anything. It was a single, brightly lit, drop-ceilinged room lined with walnut-stained particle-board shelves scaled down to the size of pre-growth spurt freshman arms. Devoid of mystery or charm or whatever it is that people who work with children like to call “wonder,” the B.H.S. library was little more than a room with books in it, in stark opposition to the grand libraries that haunted the books on its shelves, the dark dusty magical rooms found in the novels of C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien (or, often, Shirley Jackson), but it was, nonetheless, what I had to work with, and I like to imagine I ferreted out what few secrets it actually possessed. I looked for books the way my stepmother shopped for vegetables: by picking them up one at a time and checking them for desirability. I went wall by wall, shelf by shelf, book by book, my search conducted under the watchful eyes of the high school librarian, a tall thin young woman whose name I can’t quite remember—Sybil? Sybert? Seibert?—who could see virtually every book from her post at the check-out counter. The books were, of course, indexed by the Dewey Decimal System, but, in a gesture that both acknowledged and reinforced the mundanity of my school’s low standards, handwritten translations had been added to the labels, viz., 900-999: reference.
Buhler High School was itself a simplification of a more complex code: Buhler, Kansas was a tiny town of conservative Mennonites—888 as of the 1980 census and shrinking all the time—located a dozen or so miles northeast of the small city of Hutchinson, where most of its students actually lived. The only reason a high school had been built in Buhler at all was so that Hutch’s more affluent residents, who lived on the northern and eastern sides of town, could bus their sons and daughters to a school free of the poorer—read: nonwhite—element which made up a large part of Hutch High. Only two black students actually enrolled during my time there, although there was a brief appearance by a Chilean exchange student who, after three or four solitary weeks, disappeared from our hallways. I remember being aware of this gerrymandering even then, and I suppose I was so conscious of it because I had moved to Kansas from Long Island when I was seven; most of my peers regarded our school’s virtual whiteness as a naturally occurring circumstance but to me it always seemed odd, especially given the number of blacks and Latinos who were visible just ten miles to the south. Not surprisingly, the school board that produced such a segregated institution was solidly religious and conservative, and, also not surprisingly, this school board banned books as a matter of course. I don’t remember being able to find The Color Purple when the movie came out, nor was The Catcher in the Rye available in our library; every year, I remember, the protests of that year’s rebellious student (I was 1988’s) led to a short-lived debate on whether the novels of Kurt Vonnegut were appropriate reading material for teenagers, and every year the conclusion was that some of them were and some of there were not, but just to be on the safe side all of them were banned.
I doubt that Shirley Jackson was ever the subject of such debate simply because, by 1981, when I entered high school, she had been almost completely forgotten. Jackson published her first novel, The Road Through the Well, and her most successful short story, “The Lottery,” in 1948, and she remained a well-known, well-read writer until her death in 1965, at the age of 46. During her brief professional life she produced dozens of short stories, six novels, and two works of nonfiction—sly satires on family life that must have gone right over the heads of the Leave It to Beaver crowd—but since her death her reputation had steadily declined. That decline continues: a recent collection of short stories was received respectfully but without enthusiasm; her novels are either out of print or languish in the young adult sections of public libraries—which is why I was able to find one. I stumbled across the single copy of We Have Always Lived in the Castle our library possessed in, as they say, my tender, formative years. I’m now convinced the experience scarred me for life.
Of course, there was “The Lottery.” Everyone in America reads “The Lottery”; everyone, I should say, must read “The Lottery,” just as everyone must read To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn and at least an abridged version of Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl, and as a result the story inhabits the invisible realm of over-scrutinized objects, shoelaces and toothbrushes and librarians, objects whose enormous effect on our lives is never quite acknowledged; I first read the story in eighth grade, and of that original reading I only remember gleefully noting that the surname of the woman who wins the lottery was Hutchinson.
Briefly, for those who somehow escaped the story, “The Lottery” is a sketch of an unnamed “village” whose citizens say “Dellacroy” rather than “Delacroix,” “m’dishes” instead of “my dishes.” The villagers are simple folk who grow crops and clean house and, each June 27, hold a lottery whose winner is stoned to death. This lottery is performed with a kind of mesmeric simplicity by rural stereotypes who, at story’s end, kill their friend with the same automatic gestures with which they might till a field or cook a meal. On the one hand, their mindlessness is what makes the story so horrifying, but it’s also, I think, what renders “The Lottery” nothing more than a horror story: characters identifiable only as types are dismissable for the same reason. Though the story might, on first read, be shocking, it’s not haunting—or, at any rate, it didn’t haunt me. I was a native New Yorker living among the stereotypes Jackson was describing. Kansans said “pop,” “scoot,” “put it up” where I was inclined to say “soda,” “move,” “put it away,” but that didn’t mean I ducked every time someone picked up a rock.
Violence is relatively rare in the Midwest, although when it does come it’s explosive. I remember a fellow third-grader having his leg broken when he was thrown across a table during the course of a classroom argument; the boy who sat cattycorner from me in ecology my junior year used a shotgun to blow the heads off his girlfriend and the twins she was baby-sitting because he thought she was cheating on him; the only reason the lynch mob didn’t get the black date of a classmate during our five-year high school reunion was that its members were too drunk to find her hotel. Shirley Jackson was perceptive enough to realize that the balding farmer of Grant Wood’s American Gothic might very well stab his daughter with the pitchfork he held, and it was this possibility that she explored and expanded upon in “The Lottery”; but even in eighth grade I recognized the more mundane truth, which is that Wood’s farmer would probably go out to the barn and bale hay like he was supposed to, and maybe—maybe—sneak a nip from a flask hidden in the hay loft.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle is, in one sense, another version of “The Lottery”—in, say, the same sense that a mousse au chocolat is another version of Jell-O chocolate pudding. It tells the story of an 18-year-old orphan, Mary Katherine Blackwood, who lives with her older sister Constance and invalid uncle Julian in their family’s ancestral home. The novel, like “The Lottery,” is set in a rural backwoods; a contemporary setting is signaled by the presence of automobiles and telephones, but Jackson is deliberately vague in her descriptions of these and other modern machines, and as a result the novel could take place any time after 1925 or ’30. This temporal reticence is crucial to the story’s theme: despite the fact that the novel is set in contemporary America, the characters behave as though they live in the middle of the last century, much like the characters of “The Lottery.” But where the story’s setting is essentially its subject, in the novel the setting is merely the ominous backdrop for a turgid family drama, which is why the novel succeeds where the story falters—and also, I think, why it was so particularly powerful to me. My father had moved us to Kansas because his third marriage in as many years had ended, and if the bleak landscape and odd customs of my new home filled me with confusion and not a little fear, it was nothing compared to the strangeness of what went on in my house.
The Blackwoods are not proletarians like the cast of “The Lottery,” but wealthy landowners living just outside their own unnamed “village,” whose poorer residents, Mary Katherine declares in the opening pages of the novel, “have always hated us.” Why that is so is never made clear; the assumption, of course, is that the typical antipathy between the rich and poor is at play here, but gradually it emerges that the situation is more complex. The Blackwoods are, well, they’re weird, to put it plainly; not just Mary Katherine’s parents but also her brother and Uncle Julian’s wife are dead, all killed by arsenic put into the sugar bowl one evening at dinner. Constance, the family cook, was acquitted of the murders, but the villagers are convinced of her guilt; in fact, Mary Katherine was the culprit. Twelve years old at the time, she had been sent to bed without supper. In retaliation, she put the poison in the sugar bowl, knowing that her beloved sister Constance never touched sweet things (Uncle Julian’s survival was nothing more than dumb luck: he didn’t eat enough poison to die, merely to destroy his gastrointestinal tract and, as well, to upset a brain that seems already to have been addled).
But the novel is hardly a mystery: Mary Katherine’s emotions and observations are so peculiar that it’s hard not to suspect her of something. On her twice-weekly walk through the village for household supplies, she is lost in a reverie of “catching scarlet fish in the rivers on the moon”—remember, this is an 18-year-old—when she
saw that the Harris boys were in their front yard, clamoring and quarrelling with half a dozen other boys. I had not been able to see them until I came past the corner by the town hall, and I could still have turned back and gone the other way, up the main highway to the creek, and then across the creek and home along the other half of the path to our house, but it was late, and I had the groceries and the creek was nasty to wade in our mother’s brown shoes, and I thought, I am living on the moon, and I walked quickly. They saw me at once, and I thought of them rotting away and curling in pain and crying out loud; I wanted them doubled up and crying in front of me.
Note the detail with which the alternate path is described: Mary Katherine knows each step she will take long before she takes it. The magic of passages like this is that even as Mary Katherine—Merricat, as Constance calls her—fantasizes about the violent, painful deaths of nearly everyone she comes into contact with, she also communicates an awestruck, childlike view of the world, so that when her guilt is finally revealed it still comes as a shock—not the shock of the unexpected, but the shock of recognition, of a long-denied truth. The moral triumph of the novel is that, by the time Merricat mentions her crime aloud, we have already justified it in our minds; she never needs to, and, indeed, if she did, she would be much less likely to win our sympathy.
All of this is, as it were, merely compelling back story, developed in tandem with the main narrative. As the novel opens, the murders are six years in the past, and Mary Katherine and Constance and Uncle Julian have settled into their Never-Never Land existence, with tomboy Mary Katherine cast in the role of Peter Pan, fair-haired Constance as Wendy, and wheelchair-bound, rambling Uncle Julian as a kind of grotesque Lost Boy. Into this perfect world, of course, comes Captain Hook: cousin Charles, an apparition so horrible that Merricat “could not see him clearly, perhaps because he was a ghost, perhaps because he was so very big.” Merricat stresses Charles’ resemblance to her dead father, and, in her eyes, he is more than the “intruder” she calls him: he is an unknown element in a world so fetishistically ordered that the simple patterns of housekeeping, bathing, and eating are imbued with magical force. Charles is an adult come to drag her from her childhood paradise, and Merricat deals with him accordingly.
Eliminating Charles from everything he had touched was almost impossible, but it seemed to me that if I altered our father’s room, and perhaps later the kitchen and the drawing room and the study, and even finally the garden, Charles would be lost, shut off from what he recognized, and would have to concede that this was not the house he had come to visit and so would go away.
“Altering” in this case means destroying; Merricat first does simple things like smash his watch and foul his bedding, but when that doesn’t work she resorts to drastic measures: she sweeps his smoldering pipe into an open wastebasket full of paper (although Freudian interpretations are often overused, I think they’re appropriate here). In Merricat’s mind the room Charles inhabits—her dead father’s room—is distinct from the house she lives in, but, of course, the whole building catches fire. Charles goes for help—the Blackwoods have no phone—and returns with the villagers. Some of them work to put out the fire but most watch the house burn; for his part, Charles tries to steal the safe which contains whatever’s left of the Blackwood fortune, but it’s too heavy to move. But the drama isn’t quenched when the fire’s extinguished. Like vampires, the villagers are empowered by their official invitation into the Blackwood home, and, like vampires, they put their power to ill use: what the fire hasn’t destroyed the villagers do, in an orgy of Dionysian passion, and while they work adults and children both chant a local nursery rhyme:
Merricat, said Constance, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh, no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.
Merricat, said Constance, would you like to go to sleep?
Down in the boneyard ten feet deep.
I made up my own nursery rhyme when I was a child, when I was five or six, much younger than I was when I first read Jackson’s novel. The “rhyme” was only one line long—“My Mother’s Grave Is Yellow”—and I recited it sometimes in bed, more often when I crawled beneath the coffee table in our living room. The table’s wooden underside had been branded with the letters MMGIY, and for a few years, for the two or three years after my mother’s death and before I was too big to fit under the table, I cast about for the hidden message in those initials, finally alighting on that one line: “My Mother’s Grave Is Yellow.” In fact I didn’t know what color my mother’s grave was. I’d never been allowed to see it, just as I’d never been allowed to see my mother when she was dying in the hospital, just as I’d never been allowed to see my father’s mother because they didn’t speak, or see my mother’s mother because she didn’t want to have anything to do with her children or their lives, or see dozens of my other relatives because they were dead or missing or simply too far away. There were more secrets in my family than revelations, but what was hidden was nevertheless known. The hatred or violence or simple fear that produced and informed my family’s silences could be felt if not named, and if it took me years to recognize this force as the operating principle of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, I nevertheless sensed it: the novel spooked me so badly that I returned it to the library and resolved to never read it, or Shirley Jackson, again; with the exception of the inescapable “Lottery,” which I must have encountered at least a half dozen times in subsequent years, I kept that promise for 15 years.
Jackson structures her novel so that its climax comes just after Merricat confesses her role in her family’s death. The juxtaposition of the two events is what drives home the novel’s true point: that the difference between ruler and ruled is one of means, not temperament (my father terrorized me because he was bigger than me, but if I’d been bigger than him…!). In one sense, “The Lottery” can be dismissed as a sophisticate’s paranoia about the proletariat—Jackson and her husband, the critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, were both intellectuals based in rural North Bennington, Vermont, where Hyman taught at the college—but We Have Always Lived in the Castle presents a world view that is both more personal and more complex than that of “The Lottery.” Just as the villagers’ poverty is the justification, conscious or unconscious, for their ignorance, Merricat’s hoarded wealth allows her to build her own shell of ritualized unknowing. Not surprisingly, after the villagers have trashed the Blackwood house, life resumes its former pattern. Charles, stymied, leaves; the villagers, spent, abandon all overt contact with the Blackwoods, but each night a basket of food is deposited on their porch in atonement; Mary Katherine, clothed in an old tablecloth and drinking from the last unbroken cup, speaks the novel’s final words without a trace of irony, “‘Oh, Constance,’ I said, ‘we are so happy.’”
The link between this book and another subversive fairy tale, Orwell’s Animal Farm, might not be apparent, but in fact Orwell’s is simply a politicized treatment of the theme Jackson confronts on a social level: ignorance is bliss. But it’s rarely accidental. In an ironic gesture of fate that I’m sure she would appreciate if not exactly welcome, Jackson’s relegation to high schools and rural libraries has left the intellectual audience she wrote for ignorant of her words, whereas the rural clod hoppers she wrote about have access to her books but pass by them unknowingly. Only their children read them, and, I imagine, learn from Merricat’s example: if the life you see is ugly shut your eyes, and dream of a better one. My mother’s grave is yellow, would you like a cup of tea? The poison in Jackson’s cup is the dark side of the imagination, the unconscious, but it’s also the bitter antidote to a more quotidian but no less certain death, of conservatism, or provinciality, or just plain old-fashioned boredom.
Feature image: detail from Thomas Ott’s 2006 Penguin Classics cover.