Master Class: Shirley Jackson

So I mentioned last week that I planned on reading We Have Always Lived in the Castle, as a spooky treat for Halloween. I read it in one sitting, and I loved it so much that I immediately bought The Haunting of Hill House and read that in one sitting. And omg I loved Hill House so much too (although I will warn people with ereaders that you need to SKIP THE INTROS WRITTEN BY FAMOUS PEOPLE and navigate over to the first chapters instead because they are full of filthy filthy spoilers).

Castle and Hill House are a pair of masterpieces. There is some debate as to which is the superior work, but it’s just that: debate. Let us, as a little exercise, have a look at Jackson’s opening lines. First up, We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

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 deathcup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

We start so simply. It’s almost like a grade school primer. And then, with the werewolf, we take a sharp left turn into the totally weird. Well I’m not a werewolf but you can’t have everything. Then we back off again into the childish lists, but the weirdness is still there like an undercurrent (what eighteen year old woman would flatly state that she “dislikes washing herself”?) And then we get to the end, and fall off the cliff. It’s a novel in a paragraph, as the tension rises and rises and leaves us wondering whether our sweet narrator is a murderess or just insane.

Now let’s look at Hill House.

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

I quit writing. You quit writing. We all quit writing and wear mittens like chastity belts over our stupid fat fingers for the rest of our lives. Sure our palms will sweat in the summer time, and itch and smell like wet paper bags, but it is nothing less than what we deserve. Look at all those adverbs! Those semicolons! I swoon! Rules? Out the window! And it is glorious.

Let us sift out the magnificently strange statements:

1. absolute reality would drive any living thing insane

2. even birds and bugs dream

3. Hill House, not sane

4. Hill House stands by itself, holding darkness inside

5. Whatever walks in Hill House, walks in silence and alone.

So… whatever walks in Hill House must be a part of Hill House itself, for Hill House stands alone, and Hill House is alive, because Hill House is not sane. Out of that entire swirling, dizzying paragraph of complex constructions and strange philosophy, one couplet stands out stark as a drumbeat.

Hill House, not sane

The words are monosyllabic. They open those sensibly shut doors and grab you by the throat. The house is alive, and mad…. and now you will follow sweet Eleanor Vance inside.

If you only know Shirley Jackson from The Lottery (aka that one story you read in sixth grade lit class that you never ever forgot), please do yourself a favor and read some of her other work. We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House were both fantastic. I only wish I’d read them sooner.

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