If there's one contemporary horror writer poised to become the genre's next heavyweight, it's The Cabin at the End of the World author Paul Tremblay, whose breakout novel, A Head Full of Ghosts, bears a striking resemblance to a famous horror classic. If you like Paul Tremblay, you'll love Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Here's why.
Fair warning, readers. Those of you who have not read A Head Full of Ghosts should prepare for major spoilers ahead.
Lauded by Stephen King as a book that that "scared the living hell out of me," A Head Full of Ghosts centers on 23-year-old Merry, a reclusive young woman whose family tragedy made national television 15 years earlier. When Merry was 8 years old, her 14-year-old sister Marjorie began to exhibit symptoms of schizophrenia, which the girls' father — newly religious and out of work — interpreted as the signs of demonic possession. With reality TV on the rise, the family signed on to take part in a televised event that would document Marjorie's exorcism.
After the exorcism fails to rid Marjorie of her symptoms, the girls' father retreats to the basement, where he works for hours on his pet project: cleaning a large, old, pewter cross. He needs potassium cyanide to complete his restoration of the cross, but Marjorie convinces Merry that their father intends to use the poison to murder them all.
Marjorie has a plan, however. If the girls can act quickly, and poison their parents just enough to knock them unconscious, or perhaps to make them ill, Marjorie and Merry can go to the police with their father's jar of potassium cyanide and have him arrested for attempted murder. While their father is gone, Marjorie says, he can get help to recover from his homicidal condition, and they can be a family again one day. As you can probably guess, things do not go according to plan. When her parents and sister die of potassium cyanide poisoning, Merry becomes the sole survivor of an intense and drawn-out family tragedy.
Like A Head Full of Ghosts, We Have Always Lived in the Castle also reckons with two sisters and a family tragedy. In Shirley Jackson's 1962 novel, 18-year-old Merricat Blackwood lives on her family's estate with her older sister Constance and their Uncle Julian, who is disabled. The rest of the Blackwood family died of arsenic poisoning at a fateful dinner six years earlier, and all of their neighbors believe that Constance was the murderer — even though she was acquitted of all charges — because she did not partake of the poisoned food.
Tremblay is a huge fan of Jackson's. Back in 2012, he published an essay, titled "Shirley Jackson, An Appreciation," on his author website, with a link to one of his stories, "We Will Never Live in the Castle," which was included in his short story collection, In the Mean Time. As The Guardian observed in its review of Tremblay's breakout hit, "Tremblay dedicates the book to [Shirley Jackson], and his heroine’s story — even her name — are, perhaps most of all, a subtle play on Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, narrated by Merricat."
I won't spoil the ending of We Have Always Lived in the Castle for you, because it's a book you should really experience for yourself. What I can tell you, though, is that Paul Tremblay's A Head Full of Ghosts owes a lot to Shirley Jackson's novel. The connections — Merry and Merricat's names, the relationships between two pairs of sisters, and a family's death by poisoned dinner — are obvious, but there's something more, something almost intangible, that makes We Have Always Lived in the Castle a perfect, classic read for Tremblay fans. Pick it up when you have a chance; you're going to love it.