I was attending an author event at the Tattered Cover bookstore a couple of months ago. Not even really browsing, I had in hand the book I had come for, but nevertheless my gaze wandered across one of the bookseller recommendation shelves. For no discernible reason, one cover caught my eye. It was a pen and ink drawing of an elder sister embracing the younger, and the book was We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson.
I had not read Shirley Jackson since encountering her story “The Lottery” many years ago in high school English class. This much anthologized story is probably the work through which most people encounter her. And of course The Haunting of Hill House is an icon of the genre. But I had never heard of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, her last work, published three years before her death.
I took it home and devoured this short, not-so-sweet, miraculous wonder of a novel. It is the story of two disturbed, house-bound sisters, their strange relationship, the gothic mansion in which they live, and terrible family secrets. This book is, without question, a masterpiece of voice, mood, characterization, and a kind of simmering slow boil. It’s one I’m still thinking about as a perfect example of craft. Told in first person from the perspective of the younger sister, her magical thinking brings it to the verge of, but not crossing into, a supernatural story. The monsters in his book, as in “The Lottery,” are all human. In a genre filled with buckets of gore and lurid plots, this understated little book will get under your skin like spilled viscera will not.
If you’re a horror writer, study Shirley Jackson. After reading We Have Always Lived in the Castle, I’ll be thinking “how did she do that?” and trying to deconstruct it for a long time. There’s a reason one of horror’s highest awards has her name on it.
This post originally appeared in Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ blog post “Women In Horror Month Getting To Know You: Meet The Sweet Ladies With Terrifying Minds” highlighting Women in Horror Month.