2nd Best

Exhibit 23.6

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Among far greater accomplishments, Shirley Jackson is indirectly responsible for one of my favorite Simpsons‘ jokes. Being chased by a crazed dog, Bart yells, “Eat my short stories” and throws his copy of America’s 2nd Best Short Stories at the animal. The dog destroys the book and a piece of torn paper flutters by which says something like, “All in all, it had been a weird, weird lottery.”

That’s funny though only funny if you’ve read “The Lottery” which, you won’t be shocked to learn, does not actually end with that sentence. Instead it ends, “‘It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,’ Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.”

The shocking violence of it is why it’s in every short story anthology ever printed and why, perhaps more than any other American short story, it’s become part of our consciousness (The Simpsons have made at least one other joke about it). Honestly, the only story that might even be close is “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” which takes a similar twist at the end but one too mysterious in its implications to have found the same foothold in popular culture (“A Good Man…” was published five years after “The Lottery” and is, despite its obvious debt, better).

“The Lottery’s” implications are not so subtle–there’s violence beneath the surface of the bucolic town–and so is an impossible story to forget. Whatever cruelty she saw in her smiling neighbors manifests itself in We Have Always Lived in the Castle as well. The story of Constance and Mary Katherine Blackwood, two sisters living with their disabled uncle six years after the rest of their family was murdered, it’s a novel that’s fascinating for a lot of reasons, not least of which is that it brings the pointless hatred of the town from “The Lottery” to the surface yet still manages to make its release shocking.

The townsfolk–correctly–believe one or both sisters committed the murders yet somehow it is their reaction to this crime rather than the crime itself which seems unpardonable. It’s clear they would treat the girls badly whether or not they were guilty. So, in a neat turn, the townsfolk become the inhuman ones (Mary Katherine calls the worst of them “demons” or “ghosts”). It’s a profoundly unsettling side the book forces the reader to take by having the funny, strange Mary Katherine do the narrating, and it’s deadly effective. Though unbalanced, the sisters’ lives are genuine lives. Every other character in the book is either needlessly cruel, grotesquely greedy, or, at best, motivated by something other than genuine kindness.

After the townsfolk release their anger on the Blackwood girls, they at least get the chance to feel regret (as opposed to the sudden ending of “The Lottery”). Still, it says more about their sense of embarrassment than their sense of decency. For Jackson, small towns mean small minds plotting against the vulnerable. It makes the girls’ isolation, if not their crimes, perfectly understandable. They are not innocent but they are not the demons.

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