Updated: Sep 2
The first time I read a Shirley Jackson story I was in college. One of my professors assigned several short stories and one of those was arguably Jackson’s most famous work, "The Lottery". That story hit me so hard I read it five times that night and each time I was brought to tears. I remember contemplating all of the ways society still acts like the townspeople in the story, maintaining traditions that have long since stopped being relevant and holding on to beliefs and tradition that hurt people unnecessarily.
Shirley Jackson has an uncanny way of seeing inside people even to the hidden parts we keep even from ourselves. With a deft hand, she shows us their deepest desires and fears and it isn’t until you’ve stopped reading that you realize she was showing you a dark part of yourself.
After reading "The Lottery" I went to her next most famous book, The Haunting of Hill House. Another fantastic story featuring a protagonist that never quite sees her own undoing when it’s on the way. So when I found We Have Always Lived in the Castle at my local library I was thrilled to get started on it. It’s not the longest book I’ve ever read coming in at just 146 pages of normal sized print. What should have been a quick read took me days to complete because once again I was so drawn into the characters that I took my time, savoring each new piece of information as it was revealed to me. Her characters are the shining stars in this piece. When it’s all said and done you feel like you know Constance, Mary Katherine (or Meerkat as her sister calls her) and Uncle Julian as their personalities and motivations are peeled back layer by layer.
The book begins with the two sisters and their Uncle Julian living in a big house in the woods away from the townspeople who despise them. The feeling is certainly mutual. Mary Katherine has a disdain for the townspeople that borders on murderous and nothing would make her happier than to see them all drop dead.
We soon learn that their entire family had been poisoned and Constance had stood trial for the murders. Shirley doesn’t explicitly say what happened until the final pages of the book but it is clear halfway through what happened simply because her characters were so well drawn I felt as if I knew them and understood their motivations.
This is where Jackson has always shined. Her characters are her stories and they are complex and so well drawn they feel real. I would tell any writer looking to improve their character work to read all three of the stories mentioned in this review. I always leave Jackson’s books feeling like I took a master class in writing characters.
A common theme in The Lottery and Castle is persecution in small towns by small minds. People fearing that which they do not understand and fearing progress; choosing instead what has always been done instead of challenging the status quo. Jackson herself spent much of her adult life in a small town that disliked her. Her husband was an orthodox Jew who taught at a nearby college. The people in town thought Jackson was an elitist; their anti-intellectualism paired with antisemitism making it easy for them to hate someone as eccentric as Jackson. Her isolation and hatred came pouring out into Castle which is a brilliant look inside the house and minds of two women, shunned by their communities because of fear; isolated and alone. Yet the women in the story do not care that they are not wanted.
Mary Katherine would watch the entire town drop dead and be happier for it because then their isolation would be complete and they would finally be blissfully alone.