What is the most definitive haunted house of fictional literature? Many might say that it is “Hill House”, that mysterious mansion that haunts poor Eleanor Vance in Shirley Jackson’s novel “The Haunting of Hill House.” Certainly, Hill House is worthy of such a title. After all, the novel that spawned it went on to influence many if not most of the haunted house novels of the later part of the twentieth century, including Stephen King’s “The Shining” and Robert Morasco’s “Burnt Offerings”. Jackson has another story in her catalog of works that centers around a gothic style house. The story is dark and disturbing; the stuff of nightmarish fairy-tales in their original form before Disney waters them down with singing birds and colorful princesses. It is also charming (though there are no singing birds, there is a very observant cat!), funny, and quite absurd. It’s sort of a Poe-Meets-Kafka kind of piece. This novella I refer to is We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
As I alluded to at the end of the preceding paragraph, We Have Always Lived in the Castle is many things. But, is it a haunted house story? Some say that it is. It makes the Goodreads list of Best Haunted House Fiction that Isn’t The Shining. At the time of publication, it sits at #5 on a list of 185 items. Impressive.
There isn’t anything supernatural going on in this tale. But I argue that this novella is indeed a story about a haunted house. Jackson herself was haunted; haunted by insecurities; haunted by a standard of lifestyle that was forced upon her, a lifestyle which she couldn’t, nor wouldn’t, abide by. Underneath the surface of her novels, Jackson writes about the things that haunt her. So when she writes about houses, the things that had haunted her infiltrate the houses and the characters that occupy them. The fusion of house and people, this whirlwind of forces, is what truly haunts her fictional manors. Let’s explore these matters in more detail. I’ll begin by a brief analysis of “the haunting” that afflicts “hill house” and then delve into the things that haunt the family that has “..always lived in the castle”. In the end, both houses, and the stories themselves, are haunted by Shirley Jackson herself. She haunts houses in ways no one else can.
What is Haunting “Hill House”?
It is the author’s writing style that elevates The Haunting of Hill House to such a high standard. Jackson’s description of scene blends well with her poetic storytelling. She writes with a psychological pen that inscribes a disturbed persona into her characters; a persona that seems to evaporate into the house that surrounds them, thereby lending to the house a personality that is usually reserved only for sentient beings. In a similar manner, she transfers her own personality onto the page, allowing for the passage of her very own personal demons, from her soul to the story. An article from The New Yorker describes Jackson as “one of the twentieth century’s tortured writers”. Her mother had admonished her for her lack of feminine qualities, for not being “pretty”. She even went so far as to tell her daughter that “she was the product of a failed abortion”. Thus Jackson struggled with two competing identities. She saw herself as an ugly duckling, lacking grace and femininity, and when she married a man who constantly cheated on her, at least she “was married” and fulfilling her womanly duties. However, she rebelled against convention. “She grew fat…she ran a bohemian household…she dyed the mashed potatoes green..” Shirley Jackson was an outsider, mistrustful of the larger world. The characters in her novels are very much the same way. They are insecure misanthropes on the one hand. But, in some ways, proud of their oddities.
The protagonist of The Haunting of Hill House is Eleanor Vance. Eleanor is a young woman who grew up in a very sheltered environment, confined to a life of caring for her ailing mother. She is insecure, lacking worldly experience, and it is not until she stays at Hill House, which is quite possibly haunted by supernatural entities, that she “comes to life”. As the novel progresses, she becomes more attached to the house. In this odd house with its bizarre architecture and mysterious happenings, she forges a sense of belonging.
One of the pervasive themes in The Haunting of Hill House is the notion that, perhaps, the supernatural manifestations that are witnessed by several other occupants actually stem from Eleanor’s own psychic mind. In many ways, Eleanor represents Jackson. Both women, haunted by a troubled past, carry over these hauntings into worlds of their own, worlds of their making.
What Kind of Ghosts Have Always “Lived in the Castle”?
To me, there is meaning to the title We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The story is about a family that is at odds with the rest of the world. It’s about a young girl affectionately known as “Merricat.” Merricat was always a weird one, suspicious of those that could not understand the inner-workings of her fanciful mind. Even after a horrific tragedy, there is something about the the characters of this novel that remain “untouched.” They go on living in their own world, sheltered reclusively inside a big old house. There is something about them, about Merricat, that seems to have been…well, it just seems that they have “always been.”
“The Castle” is a large manor owned by the Blackwood family. It stands in a wooded area that separates its surrounding property from the paths that lead to the nearby village. In addition, there is a flimsy fence of sorts that marks the Blackwood territory. But the most effective barrier is a psychological one. The Blackwoods are one of several prominent and historical families in the area. Very secretive and seclusive, backed by historical legend, the villagers keep their distance.. They know them only through gossip and legend. They don’t dare tread on their turf. Especially in the aftermath of that horrifying tragedy that occurred only recently, a few years back.
Most of the Blackwoods have recently passed on. They were murdered! Mother and Father, Aunt and Brother died of arsenic poisoning. This poison was mixed into the sugar. Survivors of this tragedy include the ailing Uncle Julian, Older Sister Constance , and young tween sister Mary Katherine (Merricat). Constance was accused of poisoning/murdering her family, arrested, and tried in court. Eventually she was acquitted of all charges. But in the court of public opinion, in the minds of the villagers, she is guilty as sin.
The truth about how the family is poisoned remains a mystery until the near end of the story. Until then, readers get to know Constance, the seemingly selfless caretaker of the house and what’s left of the family. She delights in cooking and gardening, waiting on old Uncle Julian. She keeps the place orderly and beautiful. But she is homebound, afraid to tread beyond a certain marker on their property. Uncle Julian is witty and entertaining. But he is slowly losing his mind to dementia. Finally there is Merricat. She is very imaginative and her mind churns out alternate places for her family to live, places such as the moon! She adores her older sister , cherishes the house , but despises the people in the village. In fact, she pretty much has it in for everyone outside her family. She keeps her house safe by burying token items in special places around her property. She seems to believe that by doing so, she is invoking some sort of charm.
So, I have stated that the Blackwood House is haunted. What haunts it? Answer – the survivors of the poisoning. The trio of occupants are ghosts clothed in flesh. Think about this. Ghosts linger inside a house after a deadly tragedy. Ghosts forever dwell in a momentary state of affairs, often repeating the same activities over and over. These ghostly attributes describe the remaining Blackwoods to a tee. They exist in their own little world, often oblivious to the affairs outside their walls – outside the castle. Merricat is the only one that wanders into the village to fetch needed supplies. Her very presence inside a store disrupts the environment and puts the shoppers and merchants in a state of uneasiness. They would rather the ghost stay in the house where it belongs. Speaking of the house – it is also at the center of many conversations. Villagers fear it, tell stories about it. Sometimes out of morbid curiosity, they dare to approach it. A house that triggers such behavior has to be haunted.
Just as Shirley Jackson herself haunts Hill House, she also haunts the Blackwood House. I see her as Merricat, proud of her idiosyncrasies and distrusting of those who choose not to understand her personality. But she is also Constance, always trying to please, trying to be the dutiful woman. (It should be noted – While Jackson obviously possesses the soul of Eleanor in The Haunting of Hill House, her character can also be found in another of the book’s female characters. This would be Theodora, daring in her forwardness, given to bohemian ways, and challenging the definition of femininity.)
All in the Haunting
Goodreads reviewer Madeline sums up the haunting elements of We Have Always Lived in the Castle this way:
Simply put, We Have Always Lived in the Castle is the story of how a house becomes haunted. It’s a ghost story without ghosts – or, more accurately, a story of how a person becomes a ghost.
Her summary is spot on. Throughout the book, characters fade from the world stage and become the stuff of legends, of ghosts. Shirley Jackson has a knack for bringing out the ghosts from inside the living. She does this by creating an ethereal environment that welcomes these ghosts, fosters them, and gives them a home. In an eerie, odd house, these characters can be who they were meant to be. It’s a place for them to be themselves – it’s their own little world. Jackson, I believe, was in her own little world when she encapsulated herself in the writing process. I would venture to guess that she seemed most happy inside this capsule. And her ghost will forever remain inside her stories. Gleefully.