Monday, March 17, 2014

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Shirley Jackson
3 / 5

Published 1986

First Paragraph
"My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood.  I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance.  I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise.  I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and
Amanita phalloides, the deathcup mushroom.  Everyone else in my family is dead."
Publisher's Description:
Visitors call seldom at Blackwood House. Taking tea at the scene of a multiple poisoning, with a suspected murderess as one's host, is a perilous business. For a start, the talk tends to turn to arsenic. "It happened in this very room, and we still have our dinner in here every night," explains Uncle Julian, continually rehearsing the details of the fatal family meal. "My sister made these this morning," says Merricat, politely proffering a plate of rum cakes, fresh from the poisoner's kitchen. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson's 1962 novel, is full of a macabre and sinister humor, and Merricat herself, its amiable narrator, is one of the great unhinged heroines of literature. "What place would be better for us than this?" she asks, of the neat, secluded realm she shares with her uncle and with her beloved older sister, Constance. "Who wants us, outside? The world is full of terrible people." Merricat has developed an idiosyncratic system of rules and protective magic, burying talismanic objects beneath the family estate, nailing them to trees, ritually revisiting them. She has made "a powerful taut web which never loosened, but held fast to guard us" against the distrust and hostility of neighboring villagers.

Or so she believes. But at last the magic fails. A stranger arrives -- cousin Charles, with his eye on the Blackwood fortune. He disturbs the sisters' careful habits, installing himself at the head of the family table, unearthing Merricat's treasures, talking privately to Constance about "normal lives" and "boy friends." Unable to drive him away by either polite or occult means, Merricat adopts more desperate methods. The result is crisis and tragedy, the revelation of a terrible secret, the convergence of the villagers upon the house, and a spectacular unleashing of collective spite.

The sisters are propelled further into seclusion and solipsism, abandoning "time and the orderly pattern of our old days" in favor of an ever-narrowing circuit of ritual and shadow. They have themselves become talismans, to be alternately demonized and propitiated, darkly, with gifts. Jackson's novel emerges less as a study in eccentricity and more -- like some of her other fictions -- as a powerful critique of the anxious, ruthless processes involved in the maintenance of normality itself. "Poor strangers," says Merricat contentedly at last, studying trespassers from the darkness behind the barricaded Blackwood windows. "They have so much to be afraid of." --Sarah Waters

Dear Reader,

My first and only prior exposure to Shirley Jackson was from the short story that many of us were made to read in high school English class, The Lottery -- that highly disturbing story of a town where people are chosen at random each year to be stoned to death by the rest of the citizens. So I suppose I should have excepted this book would be odd and disturbing, as well. This was a short book, but it certainly packed a lot into its 200 pages - it certainly really got under my skin, and I won't quickly forget it. Jackson seems to really like exploring the experience of being the outsider, the shunned member of society. She paints a vivid picture of the eccentric, reclusive Blackwood family. And then she slowly reveals the secrets which this odd family and their creepy house harbor.

I really cannot decide what I thought of this book, though. I certainly loved the kind of singsong, young voice that the narrator employs - Merricat is a teenager, and it shows through the first person storytelling. She has also been quite emotionally stunted, and that also is evident from her incredibly superstitious and very simple nature. She wants to withdraw from the world - no, not only that: she wants everyone else to cease to exist, save for her older sister and protector, Constance. I imagined while reading this that I was hearing the kind of creepy-but-childish music which horror movies often employ, the kind where a single voice is singing a nursery rhyme over the slightly off-kilter and lonesome rendition of it on a music box. (Is that description working for everyone? Maybe I'll have to find a YouTube clip...) I think there were times when this book moved slowly and a little bit too oddly for me, but I definitely would recommend a young reader check this out around the time of Halloween; it seems appropriately bleak for that season.

On a very different note, one odd thing I just could not get out of my mind while reading this book was: who the heck was paying the utility bills?? The Blackwoods have electricity and running water, and yet absolutely no contact with the outside world regarding those sorts of things. Was it an oversight by the author? Was it an assumption she wrote in that those things were somehow taken care of? Hmm...what do those of you who have read it think?
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