By Shirley Jackson
Scratchboard comix artist Thomas Ott does a brilliant job evoking the serene psychosis of Shirley Jackson’s, “We Have Always Lived in the Castle.” The unsettling black and white sketch depicts a crowd gawking in subdued horror at the odd pair, in a scene reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s best known work, her classic short story, “The Lottery.”
“We Have Always Lived in the Castle,” shares some of the same themes as, “The Lottery.” Think ostracism, hazing, murder. I was reminded of the Brian De Palma movie version of Stephen King’s “Carrie.” The mousy, subtly menacing girl on the cover even looks a little like Sissy Spacek, as she appeared to spectacular effect in the movie.
Shirley Jackson wrote “We Have Always Lived in the Castle,” in 1961 yet only the faintest traces of modernity slip into the narrative, a passing car a gentle reminder of what century it is. Gothic Victorian tropes are leveraged heavily, to suitably spooky effect. Grand old homes and grand old families are depicted in an advanced state of decay. Though skeletons lurk in every closet, propriety still reigns, or tries to reign, the ever-fraying “Old Lace” of decorum a sort of fig-leaf to hide the violent, chaotic, poisonous impulses that lurk just beneath the surface of our selves and our society.
Jonathan Lethem writes an excellent introduction giving interesting background on Ms. Jackson’s fraught relationship with the townspeople in the college town where she lived. “(I)t was her fate, as an eccentric newcomer in a staid, insular village, to absorb the reflexive anti-Semitism and anti-intellectualism felt by the townspeople toward the college,” Lethem writes. “The hostility of the villagers helped shape Jackson’s art.” Suddenly, the recurrent themes of persecution make sense.
Lethem goes on to link the book to “midcentury’s crypto-feminist wave of child-as-devil tales The Bad Seed and Rosemary’s Baby, and the sister-horror film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.” I’ve never thought of any of those stories as feminist, necessarily, but that is something interesting to ponder. I’d also never considered Carrie as a feminist work, but one could make the case that she is part of a fine tradition of victim turned avenging angel, which does have a feminist flavor, and I mean that as a compliment.