We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

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As far as I know her work, Shirley Jackson is always deeply terrifying. Not because of the haunted houses, demonic persons, and ominous-magical practices that often appear in her novels and stories, but because of the casual and inexplicable brutality that seems to be ever-present in her world.

This novel is no exception. It’s set in and around the house of the Blackwood family (two sisters and a disabled uncle), who live in half-voluntary seclusion. The Blackwoods are either shunned or actively hated by the people of the nearby village, and the few people who don’t shun and don’t hate them only gets in touch with them because they hope to learn some juicy details about that exciting and gruesome event when a couple of years earlier one of the sisters went ahead and murdered half of the family (but which sister? And did it really happen?)

Looking for (and finding) a scapegoat is a recurring theme in Jackson’s work, and it’s one of the main themes here, too. Of course, a crime was committed (the family massacre really happened – allegedly), but this is only an excuse for the villagers to freely stare at, despise and bully the remaining members of the Blackwood family, and the real reason why the Blackwoods became pariahs never becomes clear.

In any case, the Blackwood sisters – Constance, who is forever pottering around in the kitchen and never ventures farther from the house than the edge of the garden, and Merricat, who lives in an invulnerable, childlike state of eternal superstition and magic but who’s also extremely pragmatic and practical, and takes a pilgrimage to the village twice a week – live in a world that’s impenetrable to outsiders. Their private world is full of simple, eternal routine, innocence and magic; this is a world without moral categories; this is a world that must be protected from the attacks of the outside world, no matter what it takes.

It seems to me that the world the Blackwood girls (and the disabled, consequently non-threatening uncle) inhabit is some kind of a female world – I was often reminded of Péter Esterházy’s novel, The Transporters, because something similar happens here: the masculine brutality of the outside world wants to invade the idyllic-neurotic world of the sisters, and it almost succeeds.

Still, what remains in the end is again a kind of innocence. An ever narrower, even more feminine, even more restricted world that’s forbidding and unapproachable to everyone else. A ruined, yet warm and homely castle where Constance and Merricat have always lived and will always live.

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The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

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Saying that Shirley Jackson’s classic horror story is eerie and deeply terrifying doesn’t even come close to describing the real effect of this novel. This novel is so numbing that its chill goes right to the depth of the heart – even if The Haunting of Hill House is not a traditional haunted house-story: it’s more about examining what’s inside the mind and what’s outside, in the so-called reality, and about the way the inside of the mind influences the way the outside world is experienced, and vice versa.

At the beginning of story, we meet Dr. Montague, a determined and naive man, who is fascinated by haunted houses, and wants to spend time exploring them scientifically. Dr. Montague finds the ideal candidate for his explorations in Hill House. Hill House is not exactly an inviting house, the neighbors all talk and think about it with feelings of unease, and it’s been mostly uninhabited in the 80 years that’s passed since its construction because everyone who moved there soon moved out again, feeling that Hill House is just not a place to live in. Naturally, the house has a bit of a dark past, too – but it’s clear from the very first page that Hill House isn’t evil or haunted – contrary to an average haunted house – because people died or dark deeds were done there. No – Hill House was born evil, and it brought misfortune to everyone who had anything to do with its construction or later history.

But Dr. Montague isn’t put off by the bad reputation of the house, he recruits a couple of people and moves in to Hill House with them, with the intention to observe and document anything that might happen. The members of his group: Theodora, a shallow, cute, manipulative young girl; Luke, a relative of the owner of Hill House, a suave, unscrupulous man; and Eleanor, a single woman in her thirties, who spent her youth taking care of her ailing mother, and now, being freed from her decade-long duty, she has no idea how to interact with people because she’s never known anyone and she’s never been wanted by anyone anywhere.

These four people move in to Hill House, and from that moment on they are all exposed to the subversive, mind-corrupting atmosphere of the house, and they start to experience uncanny phenomena, too: doors and windows left wide open close on their own; there’s a spot near the door of the children’s room where the air is strangely cold; and the view from the windows is not the view that should be visible according to the laws of physics.

And this is terrifying enough, but it’s not the main point – the main question is what goes on inside the minds of characters, and what kind of relationships and power/mind games develop among them: how Eleanor, lonely and awkward, tries to win the affection of the others; how Theodora, easy-going and careless, plays with everyone’s emotions; how Dr. Montague tries to create and maintain order and sanity among his guests; and how Luke, ever the womanizer, tries to seduce both women at the same time.

The ominous events scattered here and there among all the psychological battles of the characters are not central and especially: not surprising – because everyone already takes it for granted that something will happen in Hill House. And indeed: the atmosphere of Hill House is extremely oppressive and menacing, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if Hill House provided a home to a score of ghosts – but a couple of questions do arise: do the mysterious, inexplicable events happen because the guests are attuned to them? Or do they happen because Hill House is truly evil? Does anything supernatural happen at all? Is it perhaps all just collective paranoia? Or is it that one of the four characters is just playing a cruel game or joke on the others? And if so – who is the master of the game, who is the joker?

I don’t wish to take away the – dark and helluva cold – pleasure of answering these questions during reading, so I won’t go into more details – that’s for sure that Shirley Jackson provides the reader with plenty to think about, while subtly and precisely describing what a – supposedly – haunted house does (can do) to the human mind. And in the end this is much more than a simple-scary horror – this is an impressive, well thought-out and well (what’s more: beautifully) written ghost/insanity story, one which leaves you wondering whether the things that do happen are brought about by a real ghost, or by the lunacy of the characters.