BOOK CLUB

James smythe ex­am­ines We Have Al­ways Lived In The Cas­tle by shirley Jack­son.

SFX: The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Magazine - - Contents - by Shirley Jack­son, 1962 JP Smythe’s lat­est novel, Dark Made Dawn, is out now, pub­lished by Hod­der & Stoughton.

Shirley Jack­son is an au­thor who car­ries a large amount of mys­tique around her. She was a tremen­dous writer, un­ap­pre­ci­ated in her time. Her ma­jor con­tri­bu­tion to the lit­er­ary canon was her short story “The Lot­tery” (1948), which packed about as much dark­ness and ten­sion into a few thou­sand words as it’s pos­si­ble to man­age. Her nov­el­writ­ing ca­reer was slightly less lauded, if only be­cause the books were, it’s safe to say, chal­leng­ing: nov­els of psy­cho­log­i­cal tor­ment, of close and in­va­sive hor­rors. Only in re­cent years have her nov­els gained the praise that they ought, mainly be­cause of The Haunt­ing Of Hill House (1959), one of the great­est hor­ror nov­els of all time, and a key in­flu­ence on many of to­day’s finest hor­ror writ­ers.

But she wrote a novel after Hill House, the fi­nal book she com­pleted be­fore her death. We Have Al­ways Lived In The Cas­tle is, some­how, the sum of all her pre­vi­ous works: it’s partly a gothic hor­ror, partly a novel of psy­cho­log­i­cal and ago­ra­pho­bic tor­ment, and partly a text that deals with the other ma­jor theme she be­came ob­sessed with – the per­se­cu­tion of oth­er­ness. All of which makes it sound far heav­ier than it is. Be­cause it’s also a hugely de­cep­tive book, a book which de­lights in the lies and tor­ments it can put the reader through as they un­pick the threads of the story for them­selves.

The novel’s nar­ra­tor is Mary Kather­ine Black­wood, known as Mer­ri­cat, an 18-year-old girl liv­ing on her fam­ily’s es­tate with her sis­ter, Con­stance, and their dy­ing Un­cle Ju­lian. Ju­lian is writ­ing his mem­oirs, and it’s through these that we learn the tor­rid his­tory of the Black­wood clan, fo­cus­ing on the mur­der of Mer­ri­cat’s par­ents, aunt and brother six years pre­vi­ously – a mass poi­son­ing of which Mer­ri­cat, Con­stance and Ju­lian were the only sur­vivors.

It’s a set-up that leads you to believe that the novel is pos­si­bly a mur­der-mys­tery, which it sort of is: that is one of the knot­ted threads that is un­rav­elled over the course of the nar­ra­tive. The other ma­jor thread in­volves Mer­ri­cat’s cousin Charles, come to stay and clearly in­tent on find­ing the money left to the girls. It’s when Charles ar­rives that we start to ques­tion Mer­ri­cat her­self. She’s an un­re­li­able nar­ra­tor – all first-per­son nar­ra­tors are, I think – but much of the book is spent find­ing out the ex­tent of her un­re­li­a­bil­ity. Does she know more about the past than she’s let­ting on? Was her sis­ter re­spon­si­ble for mur­der­ing their par­ents? Is Charles quite what he seems? The de­ceit gets deeper and deeper as the novel un­folds.

The heart of the novel lies in the vil­lage near to the fam­ily home: a vil­lage full of peo­ple who dis­trust and dis­like the Black­wood fam­ily. (It’s worth not­ing that Jack­son’s hus­band, the critic Stan­ley Hy­man, was Jewish, and ap­par­ently their fam­ily suf­fered anti-Semitic abuse dur­ing their life to­gether, which peaked in ten­sions in the town in which they were liv­ing while Jack­son was writ­ing We Have Al­ways Lived In the Cas­tle.) It’s a novel that’s as much about per­sonal and psy­cho­log­i­cal ten­sions as it is about so­ci­etal ones.

The hor­ror in this book is per­va­sive. Cas­tle is not built around jump-scares, but in­stead cre­ates such a sense of creep­ing dread, of in­sid­i­ous nas­ti­ness, that it has lived with me longer than al­most any other tra­di­tional hor­ror I could care to men­tion. It’s as close to per­fect as a book can get.

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