Posts Tagged ‘Shirley Jackson’

“We have Always Lived in the Castle” by Shirley Jackson

Please note: It is not possible to discuss a novel such as this without referring to some of the plot details. I personally do not think that twists and turns of the plot are of primary interest except in mystery stories – i.e. stories where solution to a mystery is the whole point of the work – or adventure stories, where the question of “What happens next?” is paramount. In other types of fiction, spoilers don’t really bother me. But since they clearly bother others, it is only fair to preface this post with what is known as a “spoiler warning”.

Had Shirley Jackson been from the southern states, her works could safely have been labelled “Southern Gothic”, but since she wasn’t, no-one is quite sure how to classify her. And, as we all know, inability to classify a writer causes us literary bloggers and critics no end of headaches: we find ourselves having no option but to try to evaluate the writer on her own terms rather than refer to some handy pre-formulated labels, and that really doesn’t make for easy blogging.

This is the second novel of Shirley Jackson’s that I have read – the other being The Haunting of Hill House – and it seems fair to say she had a weird and macabre imagination. One hesitates to use the term “horror”, especially as the horror genre seems all too often to denote the explicitly gruesome; but her fiction does most certainly communicate a deep sense of unease. But in neither of the two novels of hers that I have read is this sense of unease an end in itself: they may make the flesh creep, but making the flesh creep is not – primarily, at least – what these novels are about. The Haunting of Hill House may be read as a traditional ghost story, but it is also a psychological study of the disintegration of a human mind, and it is this disintegrating mind, rather than the supernatural element, that seems to be at the centre of the work. Indeed, the supernatural manifestations, terrifying though they are, may quite legitimately seen as emanations from Eleanor’s disturbed and fragile mind rather than as ghostly hauntings. We Have Always Lived in the Castle does not contain any supernatural elements, but right from the opening sentences, we find ourselves in a very weird fictional world:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenent, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

Quite clearly, the narrator, Mary Katherine – Merricat – Blackwood is mentally unbalanced, but hers is the only voice we hear, and her perspective the only one to which we are privy. The opening chapter depicts Merricat going into the village to buy groceries, and gives us a rather disturbing picture not only of the deep hostility of the villagers, but of Merricat’s own grotesquely violent fantasies:

… I wished they were dead. I would have liked to come into the grocery some morning and see them all, even the Elberts and the children, lying there crying with pain and dying. I would help myself to groceries, I thought, stepping over the bodies, taking whatever I fancied from the shelves, and go home, perhaps with a kick for Mrs Donell as she lay there.

Generally, a first person narrator, by the virtue of the fact that she is telling us the story and is taking us into her confidence, invites some measure of sympathy from the reader; this sympathy is even more strongly due to someone who, like Merricat, is reviled and taunted. But Jackson seems determined to alienate our sympathies from the start: we are interested, intrigued, fascinated – but we are not necessarily on her side: we are not rooting for her. Those readers who insist in their fiction on characters they can “relate to” may have a problem here.

Soon, the reason for the villagers’ hostility becomes apparent: some six years previously, the entire Blackwood family – Merricat’s mother, father, brother, and an aunt – had been poisoned: the sugar with which the sprinkled their blackberries had been heavily laced with poison. Merricat had escaped because she, a twelve-year-old at the time, had been sent to bed with no supper that evening; her uncle Julian had escaped because he hadn’t eaten enough blackberries; and Merricat’s older sister, Constance, did not take sugar. Constance had been charged with murder, but had been released due to lack of evidence. Now, the two surviving sisters, and their surviving Uncle Julian, his aged and battered mind in shreds, live together in their ancestral home, their castle, shunning and shunned by the hostile villagers.

Naturally, the reader cannot help but speculate whether Merricat’s precarious mental state was the cause or the consequence of the family tragedy. The answer is given some two thirds of the way through the novel, but since the possibility is already in the reader’s mind, it cannot really count as a “plot twist”. The key to the drama presented in the novel is not so much the question of “who done it?” but, rather, the curious network of relationships between the three characters still living in the castle, and, especially, between the two sisters, who, despite the quite bizarre circumstances in which they live, deeply love and are devoted to each other. Merricat, we know from the first, is unbalanced and disturbed – too off-centre, perhaps, to be understood by reasoned analysis, or, indeed, understood at all. More intriguing is her devoted sister Constance. Whatever may or may not have happened in the past, it is her unquestioning loyalty to and indulgence of her utterly mad sister that remains, perhaps, the greatest enigma in this deeply enigmatic novel. Certainly this is not a point Merricat herself ever pauses to consider, so we get no help from her on this.

Neither do we get much help on what the family relationships were like before the poisoning. From some of the fragments of memory that surfaces in Merricat’s mid, and from the equally fragmentary scraps spoken by Uncle Julius, we may guess at a family not at peace with itself, but the exact nature of their disturbed state remains tantalisingly elusive.

Into this weird set-up comes their cousin Charles. His branch of the family had been estranged from Constance and Merricat, and in his appearance, Merricat senses a danger: he is trying, as far as Merricat’ can see, to prise Constance away from her. And what develops is one of those struggles for individual power that we are so familiar with from the novels of Henry James – two characters struggling with each other, for motives not always clear, even to themselves, for the possession of a third. Charles appears a brash and bumptious young man, barely bothering to conceal his mercenary motives, and making no attempt at all to hide his impatience and contempt for Merricat. But the repressed and agoraphobic Constance, who does not leave the house even to go to the village, is clearly attracted: the danger Merricat senses is real, but, as with any insight filtered through Merricat’s consciousness, one should add the rider “perhaps”: we can never really be sure of anything Merricat tells us.

By the end of the drama, Constance remains constant: Cousin Charles, once his mercenary motives become apparent, is rejected – much as Morris Townsend is towards the end of Washington Square – and Constance, for reasons we can never quite be sure of, becomes drawn completely into Merricat’s mad world. The great battle Merricat had fought to win Constance for herself is unequivocally won: Merricat’s victory, by the end, is complete. It is the triumph of utter unreason – but it is a happy ending, of sorts.

***

This short novel leaves a very strange taste in the mouth, a taste which lingers long after one has finished reading. It is not entirely an unpleasant taste: in its way, it is actually rather seductive. We may not have been rooting for Merricat – Jackson is careful not to encourage the reader’s empathy, or even the reader’s sympathy, on her behalf – but her triumph, because it is so very hard won, and so much against the odds, seems somehow deserved. It is almost as if we, too, have been won over into Merricat’s macabre and lunatic world. The sense of unease that permeates this novel stays with us right to the end – and beyond.

“The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson

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 80 years and might for 80 more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

So starts The Haunting of Hill House, one of the acknowledged classics of the ghost story genre. And after so striking an opening, how could I not continue?

Given my love of creepy ghost stories, I really don’t know why it has taken me so long to get round to this this one. I had, of course, seen the marvellous film version from 1963 directed by Robert Wise, as well as, I’m sorry to say, the predictably inept modern remake.

The problem usually with ghost stories of novel length is that the sense of supernatural terror cannot really be maintained over long stretches: it is so fragile a state of mind that the slightest intrusion of reality shatters it. This is why ghost stories tend to work best as short stories, and, at novel length, the author generally has to pad the thing out. And the padding usually isn’t very interesting; or, worse, it detracts from the element of the supernatural. (I thought this was very much the case with the most recent example of this genre that I read, The Ghost Writer, which is actually rather fine once you get past the padding.) But Shirley Jackson avoids this issue by making this essentially a novel about a mental disintegration, and relating the supernatural elements to this central theme.

The story, such as it is is slight, and the set-up may be regarded as a bit hackneyed. Hill House is regarded as a haunted house: it has an evil history, and currently lies unoccupied. And here, Dr Montague, anthropologist, conducts an experiment in psychic phenomena. And to do so, he invites to Hill House three strangers – one who has telepathic powers; another who has telekinetic powers; and a third who is a relative of the owner, and is the house’s future owner. These four strangers assemble, and then, weird things start to happen. So far, so familiar: but the plot is never in itself an important element, I feel, in a ghost story. The ghost story is, it seems to me, a somewhat conservative genre: its impact depends not on any innovation, but in doing estalished things well. What matters – what the work must be judged on – is not the plot, as such, but how frightening the author can make it.

The principal character, Eleanor Vance, has been invited to the experiment because of her apparent powers of telekinesis – powers that she herself is not aware of. She is in a state of mental turmoil to begin with, and what she encounters in Hill House could well be emanations of her own mental state. This is not to suggest that the supernatural is illusory: other characters quite explicitly experience the supernatural. But Eleanor possibly does have telekinetic powers, and it is entirely possible that it is she who, albeit unconsciously, is the true source of the haunting. Shirley Jackson very skilfully integrates together a psychological study, and a creepy ghost story, but balancing the two elements does not become an issue, as the two are effectively the one and the same: as the ghostly incidents (although no ghost is ever actually seen) intensify, and become ever more harrowing, so Eleanor’s vulnerable mind becomes increasingly unhinged, as she moves from initial terror to acceptance, and even happiness, and, by the end, becomes convinced that the house itself is a conscious entity, and that, what is more, the house wants her: for the one and only time in her life, she is wanted.

Eleanor’s mind is the only one the author allows herself to enter. As a consequence, we don’t find very coherent pictures of the other characters, because Eleanor herself finds them difficult to understand. Particularly difficult to understand is the other lady invited to the experiment – Theodora, who, it is strongly suggested, is lesbian: at times, Theo appears to Eleanor to be sisterly and affectionate; at other times, cruel and mean. But over the few days over which the story is set, all these characters become, for Eleanor, less significant: what matters is the house itself. Whatever these other people may or may not want, this house, insane, wants her, wants Eleanor. And she is determined to stay.

Quite frequently, the ending is the weakest part of a ghost story, for at the end, issues need to be resolved, and resolution usually requires a revelation in terms of plot; and that detracts from the sense of mystery that the ghost story ideally requires. But here, the ending – which, to judge from various internet “reviews”, many find disappointing – seems to me perfectly judged: it is a resolution of what had gone before, and seems to me rather shocking. It does not detract in any way from the sense of fear that has so expertly been generated in th erest of the novel.

***

I don’t know that I should recommend this book to those who don’t care for the genre. I have always loved the creepy ghost story, so this was right up my street, as they say, but I do know there are those who find the genre eminently resistible, and do not find much sense of terror in the thought of what may be lurking unseen in the shadows. And, sadly, there are those also whose sensibilities in these matters are so coarsened by modern horror films that they appear to respond only to the explicit. What frightens one seems to be as unpredictably subjective as what makes one laugh. So I had better restrict myself to saying that this frightened me. And it frightened me consistently, right up to that ending. There is no better recommendation than that for a ghost story.