Saturday, February 16, 2013

Arsenic, Blackberries, and Castles

A sugar bowl.  Blackberries.  Amanita phalloides.  Library books.  These seemingly ordinary objects fill the chilling world of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle.  

Jackson is best known for her short story “The Lottery,” (1948) published in The New Yorker to divisive reviews.  It tells the story of a small town that holds an annual lottery resulting in dark consequences.  The response was unprecedented.  Outraged readers flooded the magazine with calls and letters, many going as far as cancelling their subscriptions.  Jackson herself felt compelled to justify the story, replying, “I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village to shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.”[1]
Jackson applies a similar outlook to the Blackwood clan of We Have Always Lived in the Castle.  Six years before the start of the novel, four members of the family were killed by arsenic surreptitiously placed inside a sugar bowl.  The remaining family members spend most of their time in isolation as, after the eldest Blackwood daughter, Constance, was arrested and acquitted for the murder of her family, the villagers now treat them with resentment, hostility, and fear.  Their only contact with outsiders is now reduced to trips to the market by the younger Blackwood daughter, Merricat.  Merricat is also the family member tasked with taking care of her reclusive sister and their Uncle Julian who, although survived the poisoning, was left with his mind and body ravaged; now spending most of his time rambling incoherently.  When a cousin of the Blackwoods arrives unannounced, Merricat immediately suspects him of motives most ulterior and decides it’s finally time to put an end to her family’s troubles.  

This is a wonderfully unnerving book; Jackson keeps you on edge with the possibility of horror at the turn of every page.  Her real strength as a storyteller is her ability to derive terror out of the mundane and humor out of the terrifying.  With so much of today’s horror genre filled with loud, cheap scares and bloody slashers, it’s refreshing to be reminded that fear can be created out of subtlety and atmosphere just as, if not more effectively, than screaming and gore.  

Jackson gives the reader space within the narrative by holding back details of the sisters’ past for the majority of the novel.  This becomes an unspoken truth between the sisters, dangling overhead like the sword of Damocles, threatening to fall at any moment - a secret that, if revealed, would certainly bring what remained of the Blackwood legacy to its knees.  We, then, are left to fill in their background with our own imagination which, inevitability, conceives of a history more dark and grim than (almost) anything Jackson might write herself.

I cannot recommend Jackson’s work highly enough.  Her writing is sharp and unapologetic and her stories are dark and amusing.  You will not regret reading this book; she’s easily one of the greatest authors of the 20th century.

Looking for a book with a similar gothic atmosphere, but want to skip the scares?  Try The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield.  Want to see the horror genre smartly subverted?  Watch Joss Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods.

1 comment:

  1. Shirley Jackson...her restraint is not to everyone's taste especially since horror fans have for so long been bludgeoned by the overwrought stylings of Steven King and his legions of imitators. But discerning readers will enjoy the similarities of Jackson's writing to the more outre works of Flannery O'Connor, whom she reminds me of in terms of her regionalism and the subtlety of her prose. Complementary cover illustration for this Penguin edition by Thomas Ott, a comix artist who, like Jackson herself, is remarkable free of the bombast of his chosen genre.