Sunday, 13 August 2017

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

"I can't help it when people are frightened, says Merricat, I always want to frighten them more"

This week I picked up a novel recommended to me by my booky friend in Pret a Manger who always eager asks me what I'm reading as she makes my morning coffee. "I've got a recommendation for you!" she surprised me one day before showing me a screen shot of the cover of Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle with quotes from both Donna Tartt and Neil Gaiman.  Needless to say I walked out with my white filter and a promise I'd made to read my first Shirley Jackson.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle was Jackson's final novel published shortly after her death in 1962. Its a slim book with a curiously gothic title for a mid-century American novel but then Jackson was a slim and curiously gothic writer herself. Her mysterious and chilling novels are often set in small town America; a trope that Stephen King would pick up and run with in the 1970s.

The story concerns Merricat who lives with her elder sister Constance and sick Uncle Julian in a large house, with grounds, on the edge of a village. Constance hasn't left the house since an incident some 6 years earlier that left the family isolated and introverted. With Uncle Julian housebound it is Merricat who must make lone visits to the village for supplies.

Merricat is a curiosity for the villagers who view her with a huge dose of suspicion. We learn that the incident in the house some years ago left half of the family dead from arsenic poisoning leaving the remaining family members in a deep state of shock, until Merricat's cousin arrives on the scene.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a shocking slice of mid-century domestic horror from a brilliant writer whose sparing prose is packed full of symbolism and metaphor. The haunted house story has been imagined in many different forms but Jackson captures a totally unique suspense here as the US comes to terms with the aftermath of the Second World War and the fear and suspicion that arose during the Cold War.

Although the novel was popular in the sixties I would argue that we've yet to really give Shirley Jackson the critical praise and analysis her body of work deserves. With the BFI about to launch their Stephen King season we should look back to writers like Shirley Jackson whose work was a clear inspiration for Mr King himself.

A film adaptation of We Have Always Lived in the Castle is currently in production and scheduled for a potential release later this year which might just shine a brighter light on Shirley Jackson.

I read this novel mostly on the train into Marylebone.

We have always lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson published by Penguin Classics, 176 pages.     

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