Friday, November 1, 2013
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Taking readers deep into a labyrinth of dark neurosis, We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a deliciously unsettling novel about a perverse, isolated, and possibly murderous family and the struggle that ensues when a cousin arrives at their estate.
I read this relatively short book (146 pages) during a business trip, read in small chunks over the course of several days and one flight, and that higglety-pigglety reading messes with my recollection and impressions, but I'll give it a try.
First of all, Shirley Jackson (author of The Haunting of Hill House, "The Birds," and "The Lottery" among others) is great at setting mood. Mary Katherine Blackwood is the narrator and through her eyes the reader is exposed to the prejudices and petty cruelties of small-town life.
Years before, everyone in the family died of brutal poisoning at the dinner table, leading to Mary Katherine's older sister Constance being accused of murder. Though she was eventually acquitted, the scars run deep in the family. Uncle Julian is obsessed with keeping massive records of that last day, trying to capture everything his dead family members said and did. Constance can barely leave the house except to go to the garden. Only Mary Katherine ("Merricat") is brave or jaded enough to go into town and buy the necessary groceries and other supplies.
At first, the reader is given to feeling pity for this family, and especially for the youngest who has to face the not-so-subtle insults and thinly veiled threats that the (understandably) anxious villagers inflict. Though she is eighteen, Merricat feels like a much younger narrator, obsessed with keeping a set pattern and often playing odd sorts of games in her head. She believes in sympathetic magic, as if nailing a book to a tree will protect the family from further upheavals. Without a strong family or social standing to protect them from indignities and social cuts, Merricat resorts to the only things she can think of: habit and superstition.
With the arrival of their cousin Charles, Merricat's world is spun out of control. While our narrator sees him as the ultimate evil - someone who might take Constance away or change their style of life - the reader musto feel sympathy for the man who has come into what can only be described as a lunatic asylum and tries to straighten things out. Normal, well-adjusted human behavior is juxtaposed alongside Merricat's surreal and maddening habits and the pity once felt for the family is eroded until the narrator can no longer be trusted.
With a narrator who is reliable (she certainly doesn't lie about how neurotic she is) but coming unhinged all the same, the story starts to take on new dimensions. Why would an otherwise intelligent adult believe in magic? Why must every week be the same? Why can she not allow Constance to change her routines? How far will our narrator and her family go to preserve their shambles of a life? When the reader can see the narrator as an adult trapped in a child's mind - and a dangerously damaged child at that - nothing seems secure. Nothing is secure.
The new "deluxe edition" (pictured above) has some delightfully creepy yet not overtly horror-inspired art. No one should pick up this book thinking it's a "scary" book a la Stephen King. It is very disturbing, though, and the closer the book gets to the final pages, the more the reader can see the depth of Merricat's frothing madness.
While this book is well-written and the character/narrator transformation is genuinely intriguing, I have to say that this is still not exactly my cup of tea, but I think almost anyone should get some enjoyment out of it. And at less than 150 pages, it's a short read that packs a delightfully creepy punch.