We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Most readers know Shirley Jackson’s chilling short story, “The Lottery,” or her gothic novel, The Haunting of Hill House. Her masterpiece, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, is not as well known.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a murder-mystery that combines Gothic elements with psychological suspense. Though it gives the routine of two seemingly ordinary women, it also peers into the mind of a deranged young girl:

“I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had…I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.”

Merricat, eighteen, lives in the past along with her sister, who is about 28, and her ailing Uncle Julian. For some reason, Merricat excludes him as a member of her family in the opening paragraphs of the novel.

Merricat, who believes in magic and protection spells, lives wholly in her own imagination. She believes her cat, Jonas, can tell stories. She thinks that burying objects and nailing items to a tree can protect her and her sister from the villagers. She often professes that she wants to go to the moon on a winged horse.

None of Merricat’s talismans have any effect though when a relative, Charles Blackwood, visits and takes over the family’s home. The visitor alters the family in irreversible ways. Much like the events that occurred six years ago, the visitor’s actions alters the fabric of their lives.

Merricat insists that Charles is a “ghost” and a “demon.” He is, in fact, a greedy relative who wants access to the family’s safe. Merrricat’s fanciful imagination however will not allow such a prosaic explanation.

After the fire, and after the villagers exact terrible retribution, the Blackwood girls are more isolated than ever.

Merricat and Constance insist, however, that they are happy even if they are deprived of their beautiful things–the italian staircase and drawing room. Without their their fancy plates and drapes, they are in a barren, yet isolated place. They are finally “on the moon.”

“A Sense of Belonging” in The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

The Netflix series of the same title, though different, has spawned new interest in this classic about a haunted house.

Dr. Montague invited participants to the house that he believes are susceptible to the paranormal. Only later does he realize the enormity of his misjudgment. One of the participants, who is more fragile than the others, is driven to insanity.

What Eleanor wants more than anything is to be accepted. She has taken care of her ailing mother at the expense of her own happiness. Now, in her thirties, in want of adventure, Eleanor “borrows” her sisters car and meets the group at Hill House.

Soon it becomes apparent that Eleanor has no where else to go. Eleanor has lied about having her own apartment–she only has a cot in her sister’s house.

Poignantly, Eleanor thinks that she has made lasting friendships in less than a week. Naively, she assumes Theo would want to continue their friendship after the Hill House adventure is over. Eleanor says she intends to move into Theo’s small apartment after she leaves Hill House.

This is surprising at first given how much they argue. They fight over foolish things e.g. Luke’s attention or being in the group’s “spotlight.”

More than anything else, The Haunting of Hill House is about yearning for a sense of belonging. “Come Home, Eleanor,” a ghostly hand writes on a wall in blood. Eleanor is mortified that the ghost has called her out by name. This isn’t the spotlight that she wants.

Eleanor, who acutely yearns to belong, is afraid of appearing foolish and being rejected.

When Luke says she isn’t welcome anymore, after her unusual behavior on the staircase, Eleanor is beyond crushed. The tragic ending coincides with her lamentations at being rejected from Hill House.

Inheritance by Dani Shapiro

Inheritance: a Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love by Dani Shapiro

Inheritance by Dani Shapiro

This memoir, which is in four parts, is Dani Shapiro’s most intimate memoir to date. Shapiro who has always considered herself her father’s daughter is devastated to learn that he is not her biological father.

Despite clues along the way, nothing clicks until she takes a DNA test. She expected to find that she is 100% Jewish but the test reveals something else altogether. She is biologically related to her mother but not to her father. 

Gradually, more details come to light. Before Shapiro was born, her parents had visited an infertility clinic known to mix sperm. Though she hopes her parents had not concealed anything from her, it becomes obvious they knew she was donor-conceived. 

Shapiro claims she had always known something was amiss. For Shapiro, who was devoted to her father, but always felt at odds with her family, the DNA results answer many troubling questions. The DNA results opens old wounds, leaving Shaprio completely unmoored. 

She describes how lost she feels in poetic language:

“I am the black box, discovered years–many years–after the crash. The pilots, the crew, the passengers have long been committed to the sea. Nothing is left of them. Fathoms deep, I have spent my life transmitting the faintest signal…I am also the diver who has discovered the black box…I had been looking for it all my life without knowing it existed.”

Eventually, she has a meeting with her biological father whom she strongly resembles. They are brought together through the magic of social media.
Shapiro digs deeper, investigating the way cryobanks currently operate. She interviews dozens of donor-conceived individual who feel just as exiled and lost as she does.

As she forges deeper relationships with her biological family, however, Shapiro begins to see everything in a new light: as a blessing.  

Shapiro, who was raised as an orthodox Jew, is peppered with Jewish phrases and expressions. Her identity is still firmly Jewish, even if she is half Christian.

She puts all of her previous writings in perspective, realizing nearly all of her works were about family secrets.

Though she gives her social father “kol hakavod” (all the honor), she comes to cherish her biological one as well.

Shapiro’s story is so important in this age when DNA kits are becoming more and more recreational. As more and more individuals have genetic testing done, more connections will be made. The likelihood of family secrets becoming accidently unearthed–as Shapiro’s had–will increase over time.