In this blog series, we’ll explore the contributions women have made to the horror genre throughout history. With reviews, recommendations, and reading lists, we hope to help you discover some new, spine-chilling reads (and watches) for the month of October. If you’ve got a book or movie you’d like to review, or a short reading list you want to contribute, shoot us a pitch: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Since the beginning of October we’ve been counting down our favorite horror novels penned by women. Despite its roots in the Gothic literature of the 18th century, which was, at the time, largely popularized by female authors, horror fiction isn’t particularly known for its diversity of authorship. Nevertheless, there are some gold-standard works of spine-tingling storytelling out there if only you lift the curtain and peer closer. So far, we’ve looked at Tananarive Due’s The Good House, Catherynne Valente’s The Labyrinth, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s sci-fi classic The Lathe of Heaven. Today, we’re going to explore the work of another relatively well known author: Shirley Jackson.
2. We have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Like Le Guin, Shirley Jackson probably isn’t unfamiliar to you. In fact, her short story “The Lottery” has been so widely read and distributed that it almost stands apart from the author herself. She’s also well-known for her 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and is widely considered to be one of the best “literary” ghost stories of the 20th century. In fact, when it came to selecting one of Jackson’s works for this list Hill House very nearly made it—her ability to evoke white-knuckle terror in a stylish yet subdued fashion, that utilizes not the ghosts themselves but the interactions between the characters who may or may not perceive them, is second to none. Also: lesbian subtext! If you’re looking for a good, chilling read, it’s certainly one to check out.
But it is We Have Always Lived in the Castle, her final novel—published in 1962 only a few years before her death—that has wormed its creepy self deep into the darkest recesses of my heart. Narrated by the child-like Merricat Blackwood, WHALITC chronicles the day-to-day life of the protagonist, her sister Constance, and their sickly,
wheelchair-bound Uncle Julian.
All three surviving Blackwoods reside in a large manor house on wild, expansive grounds, separated both geographically and economically from the villagers in the town below. From the get-go, it’s clear that Merricat is an unreliable narrator; the townsfolk seem to fear and despise her—though it’s a veiled, polite hostility. Merricat, in turn, seems to hate almost everybody but Constance, the older sister who is widely thought to have gotten away with murder. It’s an uneasy, fragile state of peace that Jackson utilizes to build the slow-burning tension she’s renowned for. With Merricat’s snide asides and dark little jokes, it’s clear something is going to happen–or, perhaps, has already happened.
Merricat safeguards the house from intruders and outsiders with small spells and rituals, which she calls “sympathetic magic,” to ensure that nobody disturbs the peace of the Blackwood estate. But with the advent of estranged cousin Charles, who seems set to woo Constance (and displays an inordinate interest in the family fortune), Merricat and Constance’s life of quiet, ritualistic seclusion comes under threat. Oh, and it seems like there might be something nasty in the sugar. Do you take sugar? Or are you sweet enough?
WHALITC earns its place on this list for the exceptionally well-drawn character of Merricat Blackwood and for Jackson’s razor-sharp, disquieting prose. The fear evoked by this story is one of stifling detachment, fear of the other and of being othered, and the dichotomy between innocence and evil, and the way we perceive them. Unexpected and riveting, if you check one non-traditional horror story off your list this Halloween, make it We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
Tune in tomorrow for my absolute all time most recommended horror novel by a ~lady~. Until then, stay safe scream queens.
Kia Groom is founding editor of Quaint Magazine, and a hardcore horror fan (ever since her best friend strapped her to a chair and forced her to watch The Ring in 11th grade). The recipient of an Academy of American Poets award, and the runner-up for the 2014 Judith Wright Poetry Prize, Kia’s work has been published in Midnight Echo, the official magazine of the Australian Horror Writers’ Association, as well as journals such as Cordite, Going Down Swinging, Westerly, Permafrost, Inky Needles. You can find her online at kiagroom.com and she tweets@whodreamedit.