February 2010

Jessica Ferri

Kissing Dead Girls

Mistress Mary, Quite Contrary

As Jonathan Lethem points out in his very helpful introduction to We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson is one of the few canonical American authors whose name remains completely unknown outside literary circles. Sure, you’ve read “The Lottery,” but you don’t know who wrote it. Or maybe you’ve heard of The Haunting of Hill House (covered previously in this column) but are again unsure of its author. Well, her name is Shirley Jackson, everybody. Remember it.  

Jackson was born in 1916 in California. She moved to New York and graduated from Syracuse University in 1940. While working on her college literary magazine, she met Stanley Edgar Hyman. They married; he later became a notable literary critic but remains known for being Mr. Shirley Jackson. Jackson became the mother of four children and a prolific writer -- an unfathomable feat. The couple relocated to Vermont, and Hyman became a professor of English at Bennington College. Both Hyman and Jackson died young as the result of alcoholism, drug abuse, and obesity -- it seems their marriage was maybe not the happiest. 

“The Lottery” will tell you a great deal about themes recurrent in Jackson’s work, the greatest being the certain and willful evils of humanity. While The Haunting of Hill House may or may not be haunted, there’s no doubt that the characters in We Have Always Lived in the Castle are dealing with a very real crime, committed by people. Jackson, in her genius, begins her book with an introduction from our narrator: 

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.

Mary Katherine, in fact, is the only family member that will even dare to venture into town on Tuesdays and Fridays to return library books, acquire new ones, and do some grocery shopping. She hates these excursions because the atmosphere in town is such that she can’t wait to get back on the path back home. The townspeople hate Mary Katherine and her ilk with all their might, and they aren’t afraid to voice their disgust. They taunt her with this little ditty:

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!

In the grocery store, a young child stumbles over to Mary Katherine, but before the toddler can even touch her, its mother comes raging over, screaming with terror as she yanks the child away. All of this occurs before Mary Katherine reveals her family history -- it leaves us thinking, What the hell could have possibly transpired to stir up such antipathy? And it places us securely on Mary Katherine’s side. Imagine, a town full of people bullying an eighteen-year-old girl while she shops for groceries. But Mary Katherine seems to be able to handle herself. She mounts courage through her imagination, telling us, “I would have liked to come into the grocery some morning and see them all, even the Elberts and the children, lying there crying with the pain and dying. I would then help myself to some groceries... stepping over their bodies, taking whatever I fancied from the shelves.” This sort of maniacal, bad-seed behavior is oddly entertaining, even thrilling. Mary Katherine, or, “Merricat,” as Constance calls her, is seductive, and likeable.  

Not only has Jackson hooked us completely with this opening sequence, she’s endeared Mary Katherine to us, through her precocious, intimate tone. Though Merricat says she’s eighteen, she speaks and acts more like a thirteen-year-old girl. And it’s no surprise -- she, her sister Constance, and her Uncle Julian have lived completely isolated in their family manse since the death of the rest of her family by arsenic poisoning six years ago.  

The rest of the book -- written from Mary Katherine’s point of view of course -- is exquisitely written, both in its prose and its structure, filled with mystery and inexplicable clues. Joyce Carol Oates has done an excellent job, in an essay from The New York Review of Books called “The Witchcraft of Shirley Jackson,” of explaining Jackson’s obsession with food and its eroticism in the novel. Constance is an excellent cook, and takes care of a large garden. Constance, Merricat and Uncle Julian’s lives are completely regimented by meals. Without Constance and her green thumb, there would be nothing to do, and nothing to look forward to. Merricat and Uncle Julian’s confidence in Constance’s cuisine seems suspect, however, because it was Constance who cooked the family’s last meal -- it was Constance who served blackberries with sugar laced with arsenic. It was Constance who went to trial and was acquitted. And yet Constance and Merricat live in complete harmony, with a few remarks from the peanut gallery known as invalid Uncle Julian, the sole survivor of the arsenic poisoning, who hasn’t been quite right since. Mary Katherine, on the night in question, was sent to bed without supper. And Constance doesn’t like berries.  

Constance and Merricat’s sisterly love nest is shook down, though, when their cousin Charles pops in for a visit. It’s obvious to everyone, except Constance, that Charles is after their father’s money, kept locked in a safe. Merricat knows what Charles is up to before he even arrives, telling Constance “a change” is coming. She tells us she knows because all of her safeguards (trinkets and possessions she keeps buried or nailed to trees, voodoo-style) have either fallen down or disappeared.  

When Charles does show up, she accuses him of being a ghost, which is interesting since Merricat and Constance are the invisibles of the story. The male interloper (representing a sexual prospect to Constance, who is now twenty-eight years old) receives all of Merricat’s rage. Just as she imagined the dead bodies of the townspeople in the grocery store, Merricat now wishes and prays for Charles’s early demise, because he represents the end to her comfortable situation with Constance, who acquiesces to her every whim. Constance begs Merricat to humor him, but when he threatens to put Mary Katherine in a “home,” she covers his bed with dirt and grime (thus the Freudian reading of the destruction of marriage or copulation). When that doesn’t scare him off, she sets fire to the house. 

In what is maybe one of the most terrifying scenes ever, the townspeople, who have followed the fire department up to the house, insist that they “let it burn,” breaking in to the smoking mess and smashing anything that remains while Merricat and Constance watch from the woods. It seems that even in the wake of their destroyed home, Merricat and Constance’s sisterly union will survive, as again they are forced into seclusion together.  

The novel is only improved by its ending, which shall remain unexplained in this column because I’d like to leave you with that bit to look forward to. But know this: We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a masterpiece of modern horror. Her name, remember, is Shirley Jackson, and thankfully The Library of America will bring out the first in a two-volume collection of her writing in June. When looking at a retrospective of her work, We Have Always Lived in the Castle will undoubtedly be remembered as the most strangely feminist of Jackson’s fearful children.