Friday, July 20, 2012

14. We Have Always Lived in the Castle

By Shirley Jackson

Wow, Shirley Jackson sure knew how to write a good, proper story.  

We Have Always Lived in the Castle was the last book Jackson published before she died (somewhat tragically) three years later in 1965. And what a haunting, mesmerizing book it was… and it sat unread on my shelf forgotten all these years! The only reason I remembered it was because Olman had recently asked if I have a copy of The Haunting of Hill House. So I went to check and discovered that I did have it, along with WHALitC!

When I opened the jacket, I found an inscription addressed to yours truly from an old friend I once knew in university. We were roommates for years in a wonderfully decrepit old house (not quite like a Shirley Jackson house, but close) but eventually had a falling out. I guess I must have shelved our friendship like I did her gift!

It’s just as well. I don’t think I would’ve appreciated WHALitC as much back then. It’s not like the novel is that complex; in fact, it’s deceptively simple and short, as it could even pass for a novella. Most of you probably read the short story ‘The Lottery’ at school, and/or already familiar with The Haunting of Hill House. So you’ll see that a variation of Jackson’s well-known themes can be found in WHALitC, ie. female characters who do not conform to societal norms, who end up being persecuted by an ignorant mob.

The novel is narrated by Mary Katherine “Merricat” Blackwood, who via her internal dialogue, straight away seems like an unusual teenager. More childlike than her 18 years, it’s unclear whether Merricat is eccentric by nature or from the result of living in isolation during her formative years. Six years ago, the Blackwood family was poisoned with arsenic during a family dinner,the only survivors being Merricat, her older sister Constance and their uncle Julian. Constance was charged with the murder, then acquitted due to lack of evidence, and ever since, the three survivors have lived in the Blackwood mansion, shunned by the other villagers.

Twice a week, Merricat’s duty is to walk over to the village for supplies and every time, she is wary of the villagers, and for good reason, as they regard the Blackwoods with contemptuous curiosity and trepidation. To protect herself, Merricat concocts mental rituals which helps her to endure the scrutinizing eyes of the villagers. When Merricat is at home, she has a daily routine of walking the perimeter of the Blackwood property, checking her various magical safeguards are safely buried or still intact, since Merricat believes they protect her home from external harm. These talismans include things like her father’s notebook strategically nailed to a tree, or a box of silver coins buried by the riverbank.

Having read The Wasp Factory last year, I wonder if Iain Banks was influenced at all by Merricat Blackwood when he created the character of Frank Cauldhame (you’ll have to read both books to see what I mean). It wouldn’t surprise me since since Mary Katherine Blackwood is listed as No. 71 in NPR’s 100 Best Characters in Fiction Since 1900.

Part of the appeal of the book is the way the author draws you into Merricat’s thought processes. There is a dreamy rhythm that lulls you into the narrative. Jackson proves you don’t need to write a long, complicated novel to make a lasting impression or explore interesting themes. I don’t want to write any further since it will reveal too much anyway. You should just check out her work (which I should’ve done years ago!).

Here is a nice review which gives just praise to both author and novel:

Shirley Jackson was born in California, but lived in Vermont. In her six novels you can see her working her way into the New England Gothic tradition, creating more and more convincingly a world that is both magical and contemporary. And she has the sharpest eye for evil of any writer I can think of. For Jackson, it doesn't come as buckets of blood and torture porn and it never comes unmixed; there are no monsters in her work. There is evil in the Castle, but there is also charm, humour and a particularly touching portrayal of sisterly love. And there is evil outside the Castle, too, in the villagers' hatred - understandable in its origin but always ready to go out of control. 

We Have Always Lived in the Castle seems to have inspired intriguing yet creepy book cover designs over the years. Here are a few I came across in my internet perusal:

P.S.  This is also the first book I finished while commuting by bus & metro to work.  I stopped riding my bike a few weeks ago due to my expanding pregnant belly, and have figured out that taking the mellow No.55 bus down St-Urbain down to metro Place d'Armes makes for good reading time.

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