Shirley Jackson’s “We Have Always Lived in the Castle”: On the Masterful Creepiness of Merricat

By ,


I came to the Shirley Jackson party late. The first thing I read was The Haunting of Hill House, WeHaveAlwaysLivedInheCastleand that was just last year. On my way to the park for a lunchtime walk and brain-clearing, I pulled a parcel from the post box. In the park I didn’t refrain from tearing open said parcel because, well, book. I did laps whilst reading this tremendously weird tale, and by the time I returned home there was a kind of strange translucent wallpaper over my vision, an image of Hill House superimposed on the things of my everyday life. That’s kind of disturbing.

But that’s not what I wanted to talk about—Hill House (not sane, but brilliant) led me to We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and the thoroughly magnificently malignant creation, Mary Katherine Blackwood. Merricat, with her strange acts of sympathetic magic, her even stranger magical thinking, and her almost complete lack of conscience—I say “almost” because she does seem to know she’s doing wrong, but she shrugs and does it anyway because it’s all in the service of what she believes is required.
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October, We Hardly Knew Ye

Only one more week of October and I don’t want to say goodbye. The weather is still bright and fairly mild and all month long is the countdown to All Hallows’ Eve. Cable networks show horror movies every night, some all day, every day. “Best of” horror film and book lists crowd the Internet. There are fall TV and movie premieres galore, and had I gotten started at the beginning of the month instead of today, my first readers would have been assailed with daily posts about the campy, the macabre, the gothic—you are hereby spared 26 days’ worth of such posts, but I intend to squeeze as much as I can into the last week of this fine month.

I even reserve the right to begin to periodically honor October 31, 2016, as soon as the first of November arrives.

I’ll try not to get ahead of myself, however, and for the rest of the night, hope to stay in the present, sipping coconut milk, cardamom, and cinnamon and wishing I had some real milk in the house.

Welcome Home

YourShotDarlingWelcome to Kill Your Darlings . . .

. . . where I’m looking forward to curating as many gems about culture, books, and writing as is physically, mentally, and emotionally possible—as well as sharing some original thoughts of my own.

The general public has given more than a few writers credit for coining the ominous phrase kill your darlingswhich commands us to strip away those things that fail to serve the reader, even if it means doing violence to some of our best loved phrases, passages, or ideas. But, it was the scholar Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch who originally advised in his 1914 Cambridge lecture On Style, “. . . Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings . . .” (On the Art of Writing p 203).

Years later, the successful yet realistic Stephen King said, “. . . kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

Search the Web and you’ll find pages and pages of commentary on that phrase—who said it, what it means, how to do it, even why not to do it (see this pretty wonderful article by John Crowley in Harper’s Magazine called “Spare the Darling”). Whichever approach a writer might take, being willing to separate ourselves from familiar and even cherished ideas, biases, and narratives leaves room to draw in more than we had before. Whether by metaphorical blade or bottle, a little bit of death can indeed bring life to the soul.

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Novelist John B. Dutton, aka YA fantasy mystery author JB Dutton

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