Shirley Jackson — We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Modern technology has rid humankind of much daily drudgery. Domestic plumbing means we no longer have to trudge down to the local stream whenever we want to wash clothes, bathe ourselves or dispose of dead pets. Flying cars now take us to the moon. And social media has proved invaluable in catering to another essential human need: sending hate mail to public figures.
Why, if your forefathers or foremothers didn’t like A Tale of Two Cities (“Which was it, ‘best of times’ or ‘worst of times’? Get off the fence!”) or David Copperfield (“So at the end he just makes a whole jumbo jet, like, disappear!?!? Really!?!?”) they had to painstakingly write an illuminated vellum manuscript, address it to Charles Dickhead, London, England and then pray that the messenger pigeon didn’t get shot down and eaten on the way. Today this is all done online in an instant and in full view of a ravenous worldwide public. I call that progress.
The biggest social media storm of 1948 would probably have rained down on an obscure American novelist called Shirley Jackson. Her short story “The Lottery” was published in the New Yorker magazine in June that year, and the rest of that summer she spent wading through a torrent of hate mail. (The magazine helpfully forwarded it all on to her.)
It almost goes without saying that the haters were eejits. “The Lottery” is one of the best short stories ever written and definitely one you should read. (You can even read the entire story online for free.) If you need something else to help make up your mind, know that it was banned in apartheid-era South Africa.
Of her longer work, Jackson’s 1962 novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle is just as good. Like “The Lottery” it’s a tense, eerie story in the American Gothic tradition. Shut away in a crumbling old house and beseiged by the malevolent forces of nature and neighbours, a creepy family is shrouded in a terrible history and a seemingly inexorable decline towards their own destruction. To give any further details of the story would deprive you of the exquisite thrill of piecing together just what happened and who did it. If I were you I wouldn’t even read the back cover blurb.
The youngest member of the family, Mary Catherine, is the only point of contact between her family and the outside world, after a fashion; she blanks out those spiteful locals on her weekly trip to the supermarket, and she narrates the story to us in a wonderfully cool, matter-of-fact style shot through with flashes of pure oddball and rising panic. That she is known by the pet name of Merricat, sounding irresistibly similar to ‘America’, hints at Jackson’s wider picture of a brutal society whose cruelty is most intense at its margins. If you’ve seen — of all things — The Texas Chainsaw Massacre you’ll recognise that film’s warped family unit with its wheelchair-bound elder, in Merricat’s case her uncle Julian and his obsession with documenting the incident that transformed the family all those years earlier.
A film version of We Have Always Lived in the Castle is lumbering towards your cineplex in 2019, so read the book ASAP. If you’re not happy, don’t @ me.