Updated: Mar 3, 2020
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.
Castle is not my favorite book of all time. It’s unlikely that I will read it again anytime soon as I do with The Lottery. The plot is sparse as it should be. It is a story that relies on character revelations to build suspense and keep up turning pages. You won’t find any car chases or masked killers or radioactive animals run amok. Just a quiet cold that seeps from the pages into your fingers and travels to your spine. These are women who are capable of terrible and beautiful things and society simply can’t allow them to be left to their own devices.
Indeed even the townspeople who are generally unlikeable (we are seeing the story through the eyes of Mary Katherine who hates them after all) are dealing with being isolated from the sisters. Certain characters keep coming back trying to get into the house and into their lives even though it's clear they are not wanted. This is a difficult thing for some of the secondary characters to accept. Why wouldn’t these poor women who are so shut up in an old dreary house want their help and their friendship? The rub is almost too much for one character in particular, Helen, to bear. It isn’t right or proper after all for women to behave in such a way.
This is a story of fearing the “other” and the lengths that fear will drive someone both physically and mentally. If you have never read any of Shirley Jackson's work, you are missing out. Especially, if you are a writer. I suggest starting with The Lottery and then reading We Have Always Lived in the Castle. You won’t be sorry you took the time to delve into these worlds created by a master storyteller that brings to life characters that you could swear were real people.
About the Author: Rachel Kolodziej enjoys writing in different genres although her favorites are horror and anything with supernatural characters. She led The Red Herrings to victory for two years in the Writer’s Workout Team Games and hopes to emerge victorious from the Individual Games as well. You can follow her on Twitter @RachelsWorldx2.