Creepy Literature: Ode to Shirley Jackson


So we’ve heard from Martin Scorsese on the scariest Halloween movies, scoped a roundup of the campiest horror films ever made, and reminisced about beloved/reviled ’80s slasher flicks. The Wall Street Journal brought it back old school yesterday with a reminder that literature can be just as unsettling, especially when writer Shirley Jackson is concerned. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the seminal horror classic The Haunting of Hill House; after the jump, we add our two cents about another Jackson pre-Halloween favorite.

The Journal‘s John J. Miller relays an anecdote about Jackson, then a housewife in Vermont in the 1950s: “One morning [she] woke up, walked downstairs, and found a note on a desk in her own handwriting. She didn’t remember leaving it the night before. The message was simple and stark: DEAD DEAD.” In other words, not the typical Bennington faculty wife, but a woman with marked inner turmoil who “ate and drank too much,” had an unfaithful husband, and was later tormented by mental illness.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, first published in 1962, is an American Gothic novella told from the perspective of an young narrator named Merricat. Recounted mostly in flashback, Jackson’s opening paragraph foreshadows the ominous proceedings ahead:

“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.”

The Blackwoods are a quirky bunch to say the least. The townsfolk ostracize the two sisters, who are presumed not-so-innocent in the mysterious poisoning deaths of their parents, aunt, and younger brother years earlier. The neighborhood taunts them with a horrific sing-song chant that forms the refrain of the book:

Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea

Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.

Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?

Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!

As the saying goes, every work of fiction is somewhat autobiographical, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle translates some of the hidden trauma of Shirley Jackson’s life. Though her house was never burned down by her neighbors (as far as we know), the themes present in the book reflect the author’s own deep-seated anxieties and private demons. Jackson also freely admitted that Merricat and Constance Blackwood were loosely modeled on her two daughters.

Exorcism, dementia, fire, murder, and agoraphobia — that’s the stuff Halloween nightmares are made of.

Bonus: a complete online version of Shirley Jackson’s most famous short story, The Lottery.