Early January Reads 2017 (Shirley Jackson, Richard Matheson)

I started this year by reading two relatively short psychological horror/suspense stories. So far, so good…

Plot points follow, so please don’t read if you don’t want the stories spoiled. 

Title: We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Author: Shirley Jackson
My Copy: 2009, Penguin (originally published 1962)

My second Shirley Jackson novel and surely one of the best books I’ll read this year. It’s the story of three remaining members of the Blackwood family, who happily live and eat together in their family estate, secluded from the nearby village and villagers, who appear to hate them. As with The Haunting of Hill House, Jackson sets the tone of the novel from the very first paragraph. So much is hinted at in the first few sentences and that surely is one of Jackson’s major strengths as a writer.

I particularly liked the way in which the main character, Mary Katherine (Merricat) developed – by the first third of the novel, readers will know just how unreliable, petty, worrisome, suspicious and violent Merricat can be. It’s strange, but I did often feel sympathy towards Merricat, despite her seemingly anti-social behaviour. I suppose much of this is to do with the fact that when we first meet Merricat, she is the subject of verbal abuse and scorn by the villagers – which possibly excuses her sociopathic throughts (at first, at least).

Many readers have said that they predicted the ending very early on. I deliberately never try to predict the outcome of any book I read, so for me the climax and pseudo-epilogue of the book was very rewarding and satisfying. Jackson expertly blends the gothic with the fairytale to leave the reader with an enduring image of the titular castle and its inhabitants.

A very minor criticism of this book was that it was a lot shorter than I expected. This is not necessarily a negative point, and I’m not sure if the story or the pacing would have suffered with a few extra chapters, but I was enjoying so many aspects of this book that I couldn’t help but wish I could have a few more hours in the castle. 

Title: I Am Legend
Author: Richard Matheson
My Copy: 1971, Corgi (originally published 1954)

This is an undisputed classic of the horror genre and it’s generally regarded as the novel which started the zombie/vampire trend that has continued to grow and develop since the 1950-60s.

I found this to be a really enjoyable book and it was so interesting to read a 1950s horror/vampire novel that offered up the subject matter in this way (i.e the end of humanity/a global apocalypse, as opposed to an all-powerful vampiric overlord of other 18th and 19th century horror literature). As far as I can recall, the reader is never given a concise picture of the monsters and for much of the novel they exist in the background, either as a comatose horde by day, or as a maurauding bloodthirsty mob who surround Robert Neville’s house by night. This by no means suggests the vampires are a harmless entity in this novel, though – the much-repeated “Come out, Neville!” from protagonist Robert Neville’s now-infected neighbour Ben Cortman is genuinely horrific. Another particularly scary scene occurs around halfway, and it concerns Neville’s late(?) wife. These are some really interesting ideas that you don’t often see in vampire literature (in my experience, anyway).

One element of the story that was particularly disquieting was Neville’s apparent struggle with suppressing his sexual appetite. He frequently battles with himself to avoid looking at the body shapes of the female vampires who wait outside his door. The vampires deliberately undress and leer at him, knowing that he has been without human sexual contact for some time. He continually struggles with this through the first half of the book, highlighting the division between being “human” and being something else, something resembling a “post-human”, someone who hardly thinks of human relationships or sexual contact at all any more.

Gradually, as the story develops, the history of the vampire infestation is given a scientific bent by Matheson, who – via Neville’s haphazard research – suggests that the usual vampire tropes can be explained by complex biological and psychological theories. A lot is left to the imagination of the reader here, and some of the more compelling aspects of this research – Ben Cortman’s fear of the Torah (as opposed to the Bible) for example, is unfortunately glossed over in the third act of the story. Other plot points, such as Neville’s eventual ascension to legendary vampire-killer is merely suggested and mentioned only briefly. Some of these points were slightly disappointing to me, but given the accelerated nature of the second half of the book, I feel as though all of these seemingly missed opportunities were merely aspects of Neville’s growing self-worth and legendary status.

Highly recommended for horror fans, though I suspect the vast majority of horror-lit fans have already read it. I’m not planning on seeing the movie(s).


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