Tag: shirley jackson

On the first paragraph of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson

It’s great. It is nothing like the first paragraph of Hill House. Merricat’s self-introduction sets the voice and tone of the entire book. This close reading by Emily Temple says almost everything I’d like to say about it, as well as speculating more informedly than I could about Richard Plantagenet.

The close juxtaposition of the death-cap mushroom (with its Latin name, of course, because she likes it so much!) with that last line sort of gives away the reveal towards the end of the book—very aptly, because it’s not much of a reveal at all; we know early on whodunnit. The real reveal at that point is something about Merricat’s relationship with Constance, their long silence on the matter of the murders.

I wonder how many times Jackson revised this paragraph to work in everything we needed to know? Or did it come out of her as a whole, clear vision?


I’m very much in the minority on this, I know

I don’t quite like the first paragraph of The Haunting of Hill House (Shirley Jackson, Viking, 1959). It feels melodramatic to me. The rest of the book is so much more subtle and so damn good.

So many people have written praise for this paragraph. Benjamin Dreyer has written some wonderful commentary on it. But I don’t like the talk about sanity and insanity; I don’t like the doors being “sensibly shut” (why shouldn’t they be? I don’t like that sensibly, somehow); I’m not sure I like the image of silence lying steadily against anything (how could it, being immaterial?); I don’t like that dramatic “whatever walked there, walked alone” (although I agree with Dreyer that the comma makes for a good rhythm). I don’t even like the use of semicolons—too dramatic for me—although I adore semicolons generally.

I do like “larks and katydids,” and the idea that they dream.

Short story: “Hunt and Catch”

“Hunt and Catch,” by Jac Jemc

Featured in The Masters Review, Friday, October 13th, 2017

1632 words

An interesting portrait of alienation (and of women’s fear of strange men). I feel like it would be more effective if it were longer. Shirley Jackson wrote a story a little bit like this, but longer—more time to build atmosphere.

Novel: We Have Always Lived in the Castle

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson

Published in 1962 by Viking Press

160 pages in the Penguin Classics Deluxe paperback


This book feels like the purest and most beautifully executed piece of wish fulfillment I’ve ever read. (The thing that comes closest to it is The Talented Mr. Ripley.) When I say wish fulfillment, I guess I mean that Merricat never has to grow up, never has to learn her lesson. Constance never has to grow up either, and after the brief temptation of adulthood passes, she returns happily (?) and with relief to the safety of Merricat’s little world. They win. They triumph. And the twistedness of their triumph is a pleasure in itself, which is only enhanced by the cruelty of the outside world—it’s as though Merricat’s madness is a reaction to that cruelty (though of course it needs no justification beyond itself) and a taunt to throw back against the taunts of the hostile neighbors.

On writing and not writing

“I cannot find any patience for those people who believe that you start writing when you sit down at your desk and pick up your pen and finish writing when you put down your pen again; a writer is always writing, seeing everything through a thin mist of words, fitting swift little descriptions to everything he sees, always noticing.”

—Shirley Jackson (x)

I admit the technical truth of this, but I also feel sure that for the more neurotic of our number, the strict writing/not-writing distinction is necessary if we’re to get anything done. Daydreaming has a lot to do with writing, and so does observation, but some of us will use them as excuses to avoid actually, you know, writing things down.

Mallory Ortberg gives me another life goal

A great sentence that might be a story in itself

“‘God has given me blood to drink,’ she said to the nurse, and the nurse said, ‘Don’t rinse your mouth or it won’t clot.'”

—“The Tooth,” by Shirley Jackson

Short story: “Suzanne Delage”

“Suzanne Delage,” by Gene Wolfe

Originally published in the 1980 anthology Edges; collected in Endangered Species in 1990; appeared here in the September 2013 Lightspeed Magazine

2,422 words according to Lightspeed; 2,283 according to MS Word

I didn’t understand this story, but when the ending came I felt like laughing, as though I had caught the tone of a joke without hearing the words. The excellent reading by Stefan Rudnicki in the Lightspeed podcast probably contributes a lot to the charm I feel about it.

The style and subject matter make me think of Henry James. Also reminded of Edith Wharton’s “Afterward” and Shirley Jackson’s “The Missing Girl”—two maybe-ghost stories that refuse to solve their mysteries for us. This story, however, goes further than either of those, refusing to make it explicit what the mystery is and whether it even exists. The narrator denies that anything “supernatural” has taken place.

I’m not sure whether a twice-married, at-least-middle-aged guy checking out a fifteen-year-old was creepy to Wolfe’s readership when this was first published, or for that matter to the narrator’s own contemporaries (the story seems to be set earlyish in the twentieth century; some, based on the mention of Spanish influenza, have said the 1910s). I would like to think it’s intentionally creepy. Especially the “virginal breasts” thing and the implication that he’d like to fondle her waist. Talking to the reader, the narrator is self-aware enough to feel compelled to deny that his interest in her is merely physical; talking to his acquaintance, he says “child” rather than “girl.” All this seems like a clue that he’s an unreliable narrator, as well as, perhaps, a clue to what makes him unreliable. His idea that he “would no doubt have soon come to both love and hate” Suzanne also stands out, being too extreme a sentiment for a rivalry that never happened in the reasonably happy childhood of a sedate man.

It’s also possible that the narrator is in fact pretty reliable. The fact that he and Suzanne have never met is explicable only by an astonishing set of coincidences, each of which is unremarkable on its own. But if this fact points to the one “extraordinary experience” in his life, then by the rules of the story he is incapable of telling us about that experience, because “he has forgotten it.” He can only offer hints. The story may merely be an excerpt from his private musings, whose larger significance, if any, he fails to recognize.

This is the first thing I’ve read by Wolfe, who’s been strongly recommended to me. It strikes me as very accomplished, even if it’s a literary joke of some sort.


A great collection of theories here. Perhaps this is the real point of the story, to provide endless grounds for analysis and debate.

The meaning of the tale consisted / In discussing if it existed.

I can’t resist jotting down a few more points:

  • The narrator notes that some of the girls in the Pie Club photo have their backs turned. He wouldn’t mention that fact if he didn’t consider it significant. Therefore, we can infer that the number of names in the caption of the photo is greater than the number of visible faces. (The only way it makes sense for the two numbers to be the same, or for the names to be fewer than the faces, is if there are faces in the background, where the photo captioner would have had the option of leaving them nameless. The narrator doesn’t mention any background faces, so there probably aren’t any.)
  • Assuming the captioner didn’t make a mistake, Suzanne is visible in that photo. No photographer has the patience to take notes on everyone present in a group photo; it would make far more sense to note “Pie Club” and let the yearbook editors work out the details. Therefore, we can rule out the theory that Suzanne is supernaturally impossible to photograph.
  • If someone deliberately expunged Suzanne’s picture from the yearbook, they must have been interested only in removing her face. The yearbooks still contain her name and, almost certainly, a photo of her facing away from the camera.
  • The Spanish influenza isn’t enough information to reliably date this story. The narrator seems vague about what kind of epidemic it was. Furthermore, we know he has been married and separated amicably twice (he never actually says divorced). Would that really have been acceptable and “mundane” in small-town America before 1960? He says he has “lived nowhere else”; where, then, did he find two women who were willing to end a marriage for no reason except boredom?
  • Even post-1960, was it conventional for people to end marriages so lightly? Perhaps he’s fudging the truth a bit. His wives left him because he couldn’t give them children, or for sexual reasons.
  • Speaking of culture questions, when and where do Americans customarily visit each other “for tea”? I associate that phrase with something more elaborate than a mug of Lipton or a Southern glass of iced tea, but the discussion of textiles places us in North America.
  • The rules of the small town setting seem to ensure that, if Suzanne had been involved in some scandal, the narrator would have known something about it. He admits to knowing “the few really promiscuous girls and the dazzlingly beautiful ones[.]”
  • Robert Borski’s “Snow White” theory doesn’t hold up. His interpretation of the narrator’s role is good and he points out some tantalizing connections, but the apple and mirror allusions are too faint and too ambiguous to be convincing. It would be just as plausible to connect the textiles with Sleeping Beauty’s spindle, or the yearbook to the book of life (Revelation 3:5). Besides, Suzanne’s daughter isn’t described as having anything like “lips as red as blood,” and there’s no one to fill the roles of the huntsman or the dwarves.
  • Here’s a theory: The narrator’s mother, or some other adult, actually conspired to keep the narrator and Suzanne from meeting. Perhaps she was trying to protect him from something she knew about Suzanne, or to protect her friend’s daughter from something she knew about her son. Perhaps he and Suzanne were secretly siblings or half siblings, and their guardians were terrified of accidental incest. The widowed neighbor’s grudge was an invention, the yearbook photos were destroyed deliberately, and the narrator’s and Suzanne’s classes were carefully scheduled to keep them from even passing each other in the halls. (It’s unusual for a mother to see a good marriage prospect for her child without at least making introductions, isn’t it? The narrator doesn’t seem to notice the oddity of that omission.) But no, a parental conspiracy makes no sense. If their parents wanted to separate them, the obvious thing would be to send them to different schools. The narrator implies that there are at least two elementary schools in town, so it would be odd for there to be only one high school, even an “overgrown” one.
  • Hasn’t anyone suggested a time travel theory yet? No wild mass guessing session is complete without Purgatory, a gay romance, and time travel. So, in another timeline, the narrator knew Suzanne, and their relationship had disastrous repercussions. He caught the flu from Suzanne; he passed the flu on to someone important (perhaps to all the “pilgrims from other towns” who visited his mother!); he and Suzanne, young and foolish, did something terrible together; Suzanne infected the main quarterback with flu, thus giving the narrator his chance to shine (or to get horribly injured); the widowed neighbor turned against him and his family; whatever. At some later date, somebody (the narrator, Suzanne, Suzanne’s mother, or someone else entirely) decided to overwrite the timeline, giving the narrator a dull, peaceful life.
  • The Purgatory theory should be easy to come up with. Actually, the narrator’s mediocrity might place him just outside the gates of Dante’s Hell, among “the sorry souls of those who lived without disgrace and without praise.”
  • The mothers’ obsession with textiles is extreme, even manic—more passionate than anything in the narrator’s own life. A hint of what he’s missed out on, and/or been protected from?
  • Neither the narrator’s father nor Suzanne’s is ever mentioned.

Short story: “Paranoia”

“Paranoia,” by Shirley Jackson

Thought to have been written in the forties; published posthumously in the New Yorker on August 5th, 2013 (subscribers can read here)

Something like 3 and 1/3 New Yorker pages; I would guess well under 2,000 words

This is classic Shirley Jackson. Maybe a little too classic. Anyone who’s read much of her work will know where this is going about a third of the way through, and will guess the twist at the beginning of the final scene. Actually, the title itself gives away most of the plot. I would have titled it something more like “One Ordinary Evening, with Chocolates.” It’s a good, creepy piece, but slight, especially compared to Jackson’s best stories.

Edited to add: I was surprised to hear Ruth Franklin (?) describe the twist ending as “very unusual for Jackson’s work” until she clarified, saying that Jackson “might not have seen it as exactly finished the way it is, with the ending tied up so nicely. It feels finished, but that’s not the way a Shirley Jackson story is supposed to finish. We’re supposed to be in the dark, trying to figure out what actually happened.” (Interview here.) That’s true, I think. It’s part of what makes the story feel slight to me. The ending could be called ambiguous, but unlike certain other Shirley Jackson endings, it answers more questions than it raises.

Short story: “The Mouse”

“The Mouse,” by Shirley Jackson

Collected in Just an Ordinary Day: The Uncollected Stories Of Shirley Jackson

Around 2,000 words?

Apparently never published in Jackson’s lifetime. It stuck with me because I didn’t understand it at all on the first couple of reads—what does the mouse being fat have to do with anything?—and then later, when I had set the book down and was doing something completely different, holy shit. The build-up is so subtle that I almost missed it too: the husband setting aside money for someone who doesn’t exist, and his wife seemingly figuring it out without saying so directly. The last lines give me a horribly real image of her face, although her expression is not described or even specified except in terms of the husband’s reaction to it. Remarkable how much hints and atmosphere can do when they’re used well.