Shirley Jackson in the Summertime
I don’t know what it is, but I always find myself reading books more appropriate for autumn in the middle of the year’s hottest days. For example, I finished Dracula in 90-degree weather and last summer, I inhaled Ling Ma’s Severance on the beach.
Up to my old tricks, I have finished The Lottery And Other Stories and We Have Always Lived in the Castle back to back during a pandemic. It amazes and upsets me that I did not read any Jackson in college. I have a degree in Creative Writing and had a delightfully stereotypical Vonnegut and Palahniuk phase freshman year (2008, ew) and ate up any and all Milan Kundera after I studied abroad in Prague (in 2009). Understandable, I guess? But holy did I read a lot of men. Once I began writing short stories for classes I delved into the likes of Aimee Bender, Amy Hempel, Amy Bloom, Lorrie Moore, and Pam Houston… but still.
While I haven’t read Shirley by Susan Scarf or watched the film starring Elisabeth Moss (yet), I did watch We Have Always Lived in the Castle immediately after I finished reading the novel… and I have some thoughts.
*Spoilers everywhere to follow*
The book’s first paragraph is completely reworked for the opening of the film. I paused it, read the first paragraph aloud to my boyfriend, and then wound up winning $5 because he thought he heard “death-cup mushroom” in both. He did not. I was floored that there was no mention of the mushroom or luck or werewolves as it so elegantly sets the tone for the book moving forward. Emily Temple, whose book The Lightness I plan to read this September, calls it the “best opening paragraph of all time” and dissects it beautifully for Lit Hub.
In the movie, it is clear that the Blackwood girls were sexually abused in their childhood. There is an added plot detail of Constance’s romance gone awry with the man that torments Mary Katherine at the diner. The male gaze is severely stressed and hits the viewer hard. I find this to be true of nearly everything in the film version. Mary Katherine explicitly says “witchcraft” over and over in the film but does not utter that word once in the novel. The same is true of the word “castle,” it is only written once, after the fire. Mary Katherine’s witchy tendencies are vividly described by Jackson in the story re: her black cat, her romanticization and obsession with the moon, and her superstitions and protections. There is something about the film that although it is a physical media it tells us more it than shows us. There is seemingly a lack of trust that the viewer would be able to jump to their own conclusions.
It cheapens it. Part of what makes We Have Always Lived in the Castle so haunting is the fact that we only see the world through Mary Katherine’s eyes. Reading (and writing, for that matter) an unreliable narrator’s perspective is hard to pull off. As is the case with other Jackson works, the characters fall into madness and society’s “pleasantries” and traditions are what pushes them over the edge. With cinematography, there are more points of view and so, we are able to see cousin Charles and Constance dancing and Constance wearing the pearls she only considers putting on in the novel. They murder Charles after he tackles Mary Katherine, screaming at her to shut up. She yells “Father!” while staring at the family portraits above them.
It’s too much.
If you’ve read it, you know Charles does not die in the novel. Constance and Mary Katherine hear him at the door, imploring Constance to come out and see him so a sneaky photographer can take her picture. All Charles cared about in the novel was money. He repeated to the firemen over and over to retrieve the safe from the fire and consistently chides at Mary Katherine’s burial of expensive items.
After the fire, Mary Katherine and Constance are only left with their late Uncle’s clothing to wear. This rejection of the outwardly feminine is one way to recognize that the Blackwood sisters will not rejoin society (especially after they destroyed their property) and will not do what is “expected” as young ladies. They refuse to fill their gender roles. While I understand the impulse to make the plot more “dramatic,” hitting the viewer over the head again with molestation and witchcraft is not entirely necessary here. I prefer the version where Charles is just a sleazy, greedy misogynist capitalist and the Blackwood sisters let him, and everything he represents, go.
Something else I missed in the film? Constance was the one to say she is “so happy” at the end of the novel. I think that is significant.