Genre: Gothic, Horror
For fans of: Iain Banks, Ann Radcliffe, Stephen King, Neil Gaiman
The word “chilling” doesn’t even come close to describing the works of Shirley Jackson. She somehow has a knack of finding the exact turn of events that’ll send a shiver down your spine and goosebumps up your arms. And her stories The Lottery and We Have Always Lived in the Castle are no exception.
The Lottery – Disturbing Small Town Values
The Lottery may only be 12 pages long but that’s 12 pages of suspense-filled, heart-stopping writing. If you sum up the story it doesn’t sound like a lot happens – the narrative simply explores the tensions of villagers leading up to a lottery – the gruesome fate of which is unknown until the last few pages.
Although the villagers had forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box, they still remembered to use stones…
What makes her great is the way in which she probes at the thoughts of each member of the community. It’s fear-provoking to be stuck in the heads of all these tense villagers despite not knowing exactly what it is they’re afraid of. And when you do find out what is going on you’ll be horrified, without doubt.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle – How Far Would You Go to Protect Your Family?
We Have Always Lived in the Castle is even more unsettling than The Lottery because the tension is drawn out over 150 or so pages, and as the last novel written before her death it’s the sum of her experience as a writer. The novel is narrated by Merricat – an 18-year-old girl who lives a secluded life with her sister, Constance, and their Uncle Julian. It soon becomes apparent that the wealthy family are chastised by the rest of their village because Constance was previously accused (although later acquitted) of having poisoned her dead family by slipping arsenic in their sugar. The remaining family members attempt to somehow preserve their way of life under the resentful gaze and morbid curiosity of the rest of the village and things don’t get any easier when their cousin Charles arrives with an ulterior motive.
Merricat’s narration reminds me a lot of Frank from The Wasp Factory; throughout the whole novel you’ll feel this bubbling frustration as you try to reconcile what Merricat decides to tell you with what actually happened on the night her family died.
Although I did not perceive it then, time and the orderly pattern of our old days had ended.
Merricat certainly doesn’t help to quell your fears as she sounds much younger than her 18 years and has odd affectations – like burying or nailing seemingly random items around their land to “protect” them, or believing certain rules will prevent any harm coming to the family. Not to mention the fact that she alludes to what’s going to happen later on in the novel from the start, making subtle but poignant statements like the fact that the library books would never be removed from the shelves again.
I found myself holding my breath until I found out what really happened on the night of the Blackwoods’ deaths and once you’ve read that revelation you’ll go back and reanalyse all of the characters’ actions and motives.
Deeply unsettling and gripping from beginning until end, these two stories are perfect examples of why Shirley Jackson continues to remain staple reading for fans of the Gothic genre. If you’re looking for a book/s that will keep you in the grip of suspense, I suggest you read The Lottery and We Have Always Lived in the Castle.