Shirley Jackson’s frequent themes of alienation and isolation seem to find their ultimate expression in her 1962 novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle, one of the two novels reprinted in The Library of America’s collection Shirley Jackson: Novels and Stories.
Mary Katherine is the narrator of the story, and although I would not go so far as to say she is unreliable, her baroque view of the world she lives in does not always immediately reveal the objective truth of her circumstances.
Jackson as a writer excelled at depicting small communities and the small-minded people within them (see her classic short story The Lottery, or the lesser-known but equally compelling The Summer People, for example), and We Have Always Lived in the Castle begins with Mary Katherine (“Merricat” to her big sister Constance) enduring an agonizing journey from the Blackwood family home on the outskirts of town into the village proper, where she seems to be viewed as a freak, an outcast and a curiosity by the townspeople. The story is completely told from Mary Katherine’s point of view, and we slowly get hints of why she and her family are shunned and feared, but at the same time Jackson makes it clear that Mary Katherine and Constance, who live in the Blackwood family home with their handicapped Uncle Julian, keep a clean home and maintain always a strong air of order and decorum.
Eventually and in tantalizing puzzle-like pieces we learn that the order rose up from one particularly chaotic and horrific evening when the Blackwood family was forever changed and diminished, and when their reputation in the community was sealed in blood. The years since have been spent with the family mostly alone by itself, with only one progressively-minded resident of the village willing to come for weekly tea with Constance, who never, ever leaves the Blackwood property. Mary Katherine is responsible for the weekly shopping excursion, which we fear is always a horrible ordeal, but she has also created a magical world for herself and her sister, Uncle Julian, and cat Jonas, in which they are protected by family heirlooms buried on the perimeter of the home or nailed to trees in the surrounding woods, talismans that mostly succeed in keeping out the world, at least for a while. One day, Merricat promises, they will all go to live on the moon, where they can truly be happy (“Everything’s safe on the moon,” she says), and of course, truly be isolated from the world that they work so hard to avoid.
The world has other plans, of course, in this case executed by seemingly-kindly cousin Charles Blackwood, who has come after many years to see what is what in the Blackwood home, and perhaps secure the family safe, said to contain untold riches.
The Blackwoods, you see, don’t believe in banks, and Charles is certain there was a lot of money and other valuable items in the home on that night, that terrible night, after which no one wanted sugar in their tea.
Bookslut’s Jessa Crispin recently regarded Jackson as one of the best writers of the 20th century, and I second that idea. Although I read the entirety of the LOA collection, I was most impressed by We Have Always Lived in the Castle and wanted to explore a little just why it is such an extraordinary and powerful novel.
You don’t have to do much research to discover that Jackson had something of a troubled life. Her protagonists are largely isolated, mistrustful and misunderstood, and I strongly suspect that is because she herself was isolated, mistrustful and misunderstood. The Lottery was hugely misinterpreted as non-fiction in its initial publication, very probably because Jackson’s prose is so smooth, so lyrical and convincing that at its best it feels so very true, no matter how extraordinary or shocking are the events it describes. While many regard Jackson as primarily a horror writer, and certainly horror interested her (The Haunting of Hill House is probably the Platonic ideal of a haunted house story, with a brilliant resolution that allows the reader an unparalleled degree of interpretation while still being utterly terrifying), but her greatest gift was her ability to explore the inner worlds of her characters, usually women, usually alienated in some way. Many of her short stories follow a pattern of introducing a woman who is somehow apart from the world or from her family, and then Jackson explores the consequences of that aloneness. But far from being an easy formula, rather it provides the intellectual stem cells that allowed the writer to create an impressive gallery of worlds in which these elements are endlessly, infinitely recombined to deliver shocking cultural commentary (The Lottery), a vision of banal, suburban viciousness (The Possibility of Evil), or outright terror (The Haunting of Hill House).
Jackson’s inability to fit into the world she so eloquently described in her fiction haunted her, and very possibly ended her. The timeline of her life at the back of the LOA Novels and Stories collection holds many hints to the reasons for the wall between Jackson and the outside world, but of one thing there can be no question: Jackson used her pain and her sadness to write dozens of compelling stories, some short, like The Lottery (the story’s reputation is what drew me to her work in the first place), some longer, like We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Having spent months now immersing myself in Jackson’s worlds, I have come to appreciate her subtle worldbuilding (read any five or ten of her stories and you will start to sense a cohesive universe), but more, I have grown to respect her voice and become astonished and grateful for the eloquence and ease with which she is able to use mere words to take me to secret places where I am forced to confront the horrors she no doubt experienced in her life. I don’t pity her; Jackson’s too powerful a writer to be pitied. But I do sympathize, and like Mary Katherine, I frequently find myself thinking of how lovely it would be to take my loved ones to live on the moon, where we are free to take tea and tiny rum cakes, away from all the pettiness and cruelty of this fallen world.