Tuesday, 20 October 2015

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson Review


The Blackwood family are all dead, poisoned by arsenic in the sugar bowl. All except for 18 year old Mary Katherine “Merricat” Blackwood, the novel’s narrator, her 28 year old agoraphobic sister Constance, and their wheelchair-bound/dementia-ridden Uncle Julian. Constance was blamed for the deaths but was found not guilty at her trial. However the stigma of the incident and the Blackwood’s wealth and isolation has made them a symbol of fear and hate by the villagers. And the hatred is growing… 

Shirley Jackson’s final completed novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, is a very creepy read. Not because of the plot - very little actually happens in the book which is more of a character portrait - but for our first person narrator, Merricat, who is quite possibly insane. 

The first scene is Merricat going into the village to get groceries. A seemingly banal task that nevertheless sets the tone: the tension and paranoia between the villagers and the Blackwoods is real. But we see how Merricat views it, as a strange game filled with violent and bloody imagery which tells you a lot about her - she is deeply disturbed. 

From there we learn about her superstitions - she practices sympathetic magic – believing it protects the remaining Blackwoods somehow and the reader slowly suspects there’s more to the night the family were poisoned than we learned at first, as Jackson ever-so-delicately reveals how far gone Merricat is over the course of the novel. The calm, cold, even deadpan narration is an ingenious approach to presenting the reader with Merricat’s skewed mentality. 

Because Jackson writes Merricat as this probably sociopathic character (though she does seem to genuinely love Constance), it makes certain scenes later on that much more unnerving, like when she says she sat in her hiding place listening to Jonas (her cat - or familiar?) talk, or that hallucinatory scene where she sits down to dinner and her ghostly family tell her they love her… This is a girl who would stab you to death with a butter knife without blinking! 

Merricat is such a compelling character with a brilliantly captured voice. She is the reason to read this novel and you won’t forget her in a hurry! Those last words - “We are so happy.” - ooo… genuinely chilling. 

Castle is a novel that could be several things all at once: an examination of agoraphobia (something Jackson also suffered from), a clever look at how myths about witches begin, a murder mystery, a surface-level horror story, a character study of a sociopath, and a fitting summary of Jackson’s career (though she didn’t know this would be her last novel). 

The story features a teenage girl who practices magic and does terrible things like the girls in The Witchcraft of Salem Village (Jackson’s non-fiction book for younger readers about the Salem Witch Trials); a character called Charles (and described as “demonic”) appears much like the titular character in her short story of the same name; the barely-repressed hostility of the villagers resembles the similar community depicted in The Lottery, and there’s a troubled young woman trapped in a house much like Eleanor in The Haunting of Hill House. 

Whether she intended it or not, Shirley Jackson will always be remembered as a horror writer (though in his introduction Jonathan Lethem wryly notes that Henry James wrote more horror stories yet he’s not considered a horror writer). She does seem to always be inviting the reader to make that comparison though in this novel – Merricat is basically a witch, the memories/ghosts of the past proverbially haunt a gothic manse, death, menace, and violent tension suffuse the story. Jackson is always walking this thin line between genre and everyday horror. (Speaking of Henry James, Oscar Wilde called The Turn of the Screw “a poisonous little tale” - it wasn’t, it was beyond boring! - which is a phrase more aptly suited to We Have Always Lived in the Castle.) 

A special mention to the cover artist of this edition, Thomas Ott, a cartoonist whose own horror comics are definitely worth seeking out especially if you’re a fan of The Twilight Zone. The scratchboard black and white illustration is outstanding - Penguin made a good match with Ott’s unsettling visual style and Jackson’s eerie, atmospheric story. 

Shirley Jackson spent much of her career writing about disturbed women and in her last novel – her masterpiece - she created her finest character in Mary Katherine Blackwood. Merricat’s story is well worth listening to but a word of advice: if she offers you sugar with your tea, politely decline…

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

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