I have just finished the tantalisingly mysterious, deliciously Gothic slice of New England oddity that is We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. Jackson is not an author I have come across before, but the dearly beloved Mr Neil Gaiman mentioned her in an Instagram post last week and I was intrigued by the hail of approval the post met with.
What a grand slice of darkness it is, to be sure. From the opening premise, a dead family and a sister acquitted of their murder, the story is revealed slowly, layers peeling away as you come to know the family of the Blackwoods, the public details of the tragic murder of most of the family (arsenic in the sugar bowl), the house they live in and the strange attitudes of Merricat and Constance Blackwood to the rest of the world. While the big reveal is not particularly shocking – it’s not a murder mystery, after all – it is so nicely done with such elegant hints and characterisation that it’s more a relief than a surprise when it’s said out loud.
It is a great moment in an avid readers life when you find a book that feels new and different. Shirley Jackson’s work doesn’t feel precisely unique; creepy towns in New England are a staple of American horror, a family poisoned with arsenic is a fairly classic murder and the uncanny feel of something not quite right in the household is a touch of atmosphere to be found in many novels. But I think Shirley Jackson may have the distinction of being a founding father in these tropes. Certainly in her lifetime her writing was considered shocking, though her first short story The Lottery (yearly ritual sacrifice in creepy village decided by lottery) represents an idea as familiar as a fairy-tale to modern audiences.
And Shirley Jackson’s ability to craft a story is entirely her own. Building the complexities of family, sanity, responsibility and community around the voice of Merricat herself, in a narrative interwoven with home-grown magic, food and the minutiae of a deeply enclosed life in a house that has become a museum to the Blackwood family, the result is an oddly bright story, eerie with the alternating naivety and shrewdness of the narrator. Having read this, I suddenly see shades of Jackson in Gaiman, Donna Tartt, Sarah Waters, the list goes on. I am thrilled to have found a writer who provides a backbone to so many others, and of whom I was so entirely ignorant.
And so to the beverage. Food is so very important to the nature of this beast that I am inclined to a cocktail, something with a recipe. Taking as our starting point then a grand American bourbon I had a flutter through the pages of the trusty 1977 Booth’s Handbook of Cocktails and Mixed Drinks. This learned tome has many suggestions, but I proffer a Bourbon sour, a drink that is, like the book, classic with a kick. Plus the sugar is a nice nod to the vector for the arsenic in the Blackwood house.
Booth’s has it thusly: 1 oz. Bourbon to 1/2 oz. lemon juice, with a teaspoon of powdered sugar. Shake and strain.
Book: We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson
Pair with: A Bourbon Sour