Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson

American gothic: it's always the quiet ones.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Viking Press, 1962, 214 pages

Six years after four family members died of arsenic poisoning, the three remaining Blackwoods—elder, agoraphobic sister Constance; wheelchair-bound Uncle Julian; and 18-year-old Mary Katherine, or, Merricat—live together in pleasant isolation. Merricat has developed an idiosyncratic system of rules and protective magic to guard the estate against intrusions from hostile villagers. But one day a stranger arrives—cousin Charles, with his eye on the Blackwood fortune—and manages to penetrate into their carefully shielded lives. Unable to drive him away by either polite or occult means, Merricat adopts more desperate methods, resulting in crisis, tragedy, and the revelation of a terrible secret.

Shirley Jackson wrote creepy psychological novels and short stories and should have been more famous. She's most famous for The Haunting of Hill House, but probably the quintessential Shirley Jackson tale is The Lottery, a short story which you should go read right now. It was a predecessor to Ursula K. LeGuin's The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas (go read that, too) and Stephen King's The Long Walk, so one might say that even Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games was influenced second-hand by Shirley Jackson. Stephen King certainly was, and Jackson's cold, spooky New England settings with friendly folks whose faces are a seething mask of malice and resentment would fit right in in King territory.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle has a very straightforward plot and the "twist" is fairly predictable, being narrated the way it is, but because it's narrated the way it is, the plot is not the most important thing. The narrator introduces herself thusly:

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 death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.

Mary Katherine Blackwood, or "Merricat" as her older sister Constance calls her, is eighteen but acts more like she's twelve, which is how old she was when everyone else in her family except Constance and Uncle Julian sat down one day to dinner and died hours later of arsenic poisoning. Mary Katherine lived because she'd been sent to bed that night without her supper. Constance lived because she never puts sugar on her berries, and the arsenic was in the sugar. Uncle Julian lived, but as a result of the poisoning is wheelchair-bound and mentally infirm.

Constance was tried for the crime, but acquitted. The Blackwoods were rich, and thus resented by the townspeople, who now whisper about and taunt Merricat and Constance. Constance has taken to hiding from the world, and never leaves the estate. Mary Katherine believes herself to be perfectly happy alone with Constance, Uncle Julian, and her cat, Jonas. She uses magic words and nails things to trees and buries things in the yard to keep strangers away. She talks to Jonas. She recites the properties of poisonous plants, and tells Constance what it will be like when they live on the moon.

Almost a book of gloomy magical realism, it's not always clear where Merricat's fantasies end and reality begins, because she draws the reader into her delusional worldview so smoothly that it becomes easy to believe that Jonas really understands her, that her magical barriers really are keeping people away, and that someday she really will live on the moon. It's the little touches -- the girlish petulance that's much too childish for her age, her oft-repeated refrain "I was chilled" when the real world intrudes on the one that exists inside her head, and the occasional reactions of other people whom she cannot control -- that clue us in to the fact that Merricat is a very, very unreliable narrator.

She is sympathetic in her batshit crazy way, though, and like Merricat, you want to protect poor Constance, whom everyone believes to be a crazy poisoner who got away with mass murder. Some locals come to visit and pretend concern for the girls, but mostly they are morbidly curious busybodies, and when Merricat goes to town, children taunt her and grown-ups make veiled threats. Jackson did creepy New England towns and sinister gothic houses without the lurking horrors of Lovecraft or the explicit domestic violence and monster-gore of Stephen King. In Jackson's stories, one can easily imagine all those things happening behind the scenes, but they never actually appear on the page.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is short and plotted in a straightforward fashion interpreted through Mary Katherine's skewed perceptions, and like the (much shorter) The Lottery, ends in a way that doesn't really surprise you, but leaves you sitting there going, "Well, shit." For the first half of the book, I was expecting there to be a "punchline" at the end; this book has much of the feel of an old Twilight Zone episode, where all the expectations that have been set up throughout the story are turned on their heads, and you find out the Blackwoods are actually werewolves or something. But in fact, the punchline is that some people are crazy and most people only pretend to be decent and no one really knows what's going on in someone else's head. For this reason, the few negative reviews the book gets seem to be from readers who expected something more thrilling or more mysterious.

Verdict: A superlatively creepy American gothic, light on horror for those who don't really want violence or thrills, but no less chilling for its relatively mundane events. Shirley Jackson had a way of conveying how seemingly ordinary people have squirming eels in their heads.
Tags: books, highly recommended, horror, mystery, reviews, shirley jackson

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