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A Novella Sunday (We Have Always Lived in the Castle)

May 18, 2008

I know, I know: usually I try to write about short stories on Sunday. But Emily told me that I should read We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, because she loves it. And she even used caps lock! Who am I to ignore that kind of recommendation?

Luckily, I woke up waaay too early this morning, and it was still dark out, and kind of chilly, so the macabre mood was set. This is my third, and longest, Shirley Jackson experience, and I find myself wanting to run to Barnes and Noble and snatch all of her books off the shelves, then bring them home to live with me. Why? Because We Have Always Lived in the Castle is by far one of the most disturbing books I’ve read in a long time. And it’s disturbing in a delicious, perfect, thoughtful kind of way.

Oh right: I should probably tell you what the book’s about, right? But I went into it with absolutely no knowledge (except for the awesome quote on the back cover: “What you are holding in your hand is no mere book-it is an item of black magic, once you have opened its cover, you will be placed under a spell that cannot be broken until you turn the last page…” Seriously!), and I think that’s part of how it worked its magic. So if you want to same experience as me, stop reading now. If you need a more convincing reason to read it though, keep going!

The book opens with our narrator introducing herself. The paragraph is possibly one of the best first ones I’ve ever encountered, so I’m sharing it fully:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live withmy 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 Plantagenent, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

How could you not want to keep reading after that? It also turns out that Mary appreciates books, so much so that she’s willing to do a very onerous task:

Fridays and Tuesdays are terrible days, because I had to go into the village. Someone had to go to the library, and the grocery; Constance never went past her own garden, and Uncle Julian could not. Therefore it was not pride that took me into the village twice a week, or even stubbornness, but only the simple need for books and food.

I think we all sympathise with those basic necessities. :) If you’ve read any Jackson at all, you know that her greatest skill is mood: she can slowly increase your sense of unease, until you have goosebumps without quite realising it. And she certainly does it in this book! Obviously, things aren’t quite right: the villagers hate Mary Katherine, and they torment her with a weird nursery rhyme: “Merricat, said Constance, would you like a cup of tea?/Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me./Merricat, said Constance, would you like me to go to sleep?/Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!” Eventually, Mary Katherine finishes her errands and returns home, but things get even weirder. Why won’t Constance leave her garden? And what is senile Uncle Julian going on about all of the time? Fortunately, Jackson fills the reader in by chapter three, when visitors come for tea. But even then, mysteries remain, and change descends upon the Blackwood house, a change that will destroy everything familiar about their lives…

If you haven’t read the book yet, you should stop reading this post now (and put it on your R.I.P. III challenge list). Because I’m going to talk about definite spoiler-y things, just because this is the kind of book that you want to discuss!
Right: first point. It’s incredible how much control Jackson has over her narrator! How in the beginning, the reader really symphathises with Merrikat (I love her name, by the way) and wants to see her happy. But slowly, the reader begins to realise that Merrikat doesn’t exactly sound like an eighteen-year-old (what kind of eighteen-year-old isn’t allowed to handle knives?), and that all of her belief in magic isn’t exactly innocent. I began suspecting pretty quickly who really put the arsenic in the sugar, as I think Jackson wants us to. And by the end of the book, I just wanted Merrikat to let her poor sister go have a life! It’s also really neat how her hatred of the villagers, and wishing death upon them (which at first seems so justified) with hindsight looks incredibly sinister.

Which brings me to my second point: Constance is the only good person in the book. I mean, the villagers do redeem themselves in the end, but they still give in to the more hateful human impulses. Merrikat is, at best, morally ambigious (I think the creepiest scene in the entire story was when Merrikat was imagining her family at dinner, only they all worshipped her *shudder*) and at worst quite manic. Uncle Julian is cracked. And Cousin Charles is a greedy little bugger. Constance, on the other hand, has basically decided to be a martyr: she must have quickly realised what Merrikat did, and at twenty-two once she was acquitted she could have left her sister in the orphanage, and run away and began a new life (we know she was beautiful, and a wonderful home-maker, and probably very intelligent, so it wouldn’t have been difficult to start over). You can tell she still has a secret desire to, by the way she interacts with Charles. I don’t think she necessarily likes him, so much as what he represents: some slim chance for a more normal future, a life that isn’t spent taking care of her mentally disturbed sister and dying uncle. But in the end, she commits to staying with Merrikat; essentially, to giving up her sanity. I mean, there’s no way you can stay locked up in a house all day, with a loving sister who murdered your parents and brother, only coming out in the dark, never even talking to anyone else, and not realise you’re going to lose your mind eventually. It’s a brave decision, and one that I think stems from both love and guilt (it seems that she thinks she should have figured out what Merrikat was going to do to the sugar, and somehow saved her family).

Ok, I think I’m done for now! If you’ve read the book, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it as well. This seems like one of those that only gets better on each re-reading.

35 Comments leave one →
  1. May 18, 2008 6:51 am

    I have not read this book, but once again, you’ve made me head to BookMooch to see if I can get it. I think at some point you will have to come to my house and find my body buried under the books you’ve recommended. Put that on your to do list will ya. ;)

  2. May 18, 2008 7:20 am

    You’ve made it impossible to resist. Impossible. I already told Rich that we have to go to B&N today to get this. Which is stupid, of course, because who knows when I’ll get a chance to read it. Yet still your review has left me no choice.

    The only thing I’ve ever read by Jackson is The Lottery, all those many years ago back in school. I do have The Haunting of Hill House sitting on my bookcase waiting for RIP. But this one…I’m not sure I can wait until September. Thank, Eva!

  3. May 18, 2008 10:38 am

    Holy crap! The only Jackson I’ve read is the short story that everyone has read: “The Lottery.” I only skimmed your post because I want to be surprised when I pick this one up. And pick it up I will!

  4. May 18, 2008 10:45 am

    I have read this book several times but not recently. Shirley Jackson is fabulous at creepy and the evils hidden within. I loved this book!

  5. May 18, 2008 11:09 am

    Ok…so I stopped reading before the spoiler-y things and I think that I’m heading out the door now to buy this one!! Seriously, this sounds incredible and right up my alley. I don’t know if I could wait until RIP III though. Like Andi, the only other thing I’ve read by her is The Lottery and I’ve read that like 4 times in various lit classes. I’ve always enjoyed it though. I’m so excited about this book now!

  6. May 18, 2008 12:27 pm

    I am so much not reading this review, because I WILL read this book, and I love going in to books totally clueless (especially if, as I suspect this will be, they are awesome).

  7. May 18, 2008 12:43 pm

    Well, I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle last year and, to be honest, I thought it was disappointing. So far, I’ve felt that way about absolutely everything I’ve read by Shirley Jackson, though, including “The Lottery”. Maybe she’s just not the author for me. I do think she is excellent at building emotional suspense. I’ve just never been satisfied with her endings.

  8. May 18, 2008 5:30 pm

    Oh, so glad you read it. Now you have to read The Haunting of Hill House (I wrote a whole ghost story based on that one). You capture perfectly the creepiness of it. You know how some books just stay with you long, long after you read them? This one has for me. It’s such an interesting twist on the typical “dysfunctional family” tale, and you’re right about Constance and her role as the “good” one in the family. I think in October, I will re-read this one, because it’s been a while since I read it. I hated Jackson’s The Lottery when we had to read it in high school, but I’ve loved her novellas and novels. She also apparently wrote some other completely different (humorous even, if I remember correctly) stuff about family life, but I haven’t read any of that yet.

  9. May 18, 2008 6:57 pm

    I haven’t read this, but I certainly will after this review. As a matter of fact, if the library weren’t closed, I’d be on my bike and on my way there!

  10. May 18, 2008 10:58 pm

    I’m so glad you read this! It’s my very favorite Shirley Jackson novel. I recommend “Hangsaman” for you next, then “The Haunting Of Hill House”. “Castle” is a bit of a siren song for would-be agoraphobics, isn’t it?

  11. May 19, 2008 12:28 am

    What you are holding in your hand is no mere book-it is an item of black magic, once you have opened its cover, you will be placed under a spell that cannot be broken until you turn the last page…

    Ok you got me – I’ve stopped reading just there and am off to Amazon…

  12. May 19, 2008 5:14 am

    Andi, lol! I’ll stop by when I’m in the neighbourhood. :D

    Debi, I think you’ll really like it!

    Andi, can’t wait to see your thoughts. :D

    Jaimie, she is so good at creepy.

    Chris, hehe-I hope you find a copy! :D

    Raych, I love going into books clueless as well.

    Nancy, I can see how the ending could be frustrating. When I first closed the book, I wasn’t sure what to think, but after letting it digest for around half an hour, I decided the ending really worked.

    Emily, thanks for telling me to! I never had to read “The Lottery” for any classes, so just reading it on my own I enjoyed it. And I’ll definitely pick up The Haunting of Hill House soon. :D

    Ravenous Reader, hope your library had it!

    Bybee, I haven’t even heard of Hangsaman-off to find out about it. :) And yes, would-be agoraphobes probably find it very appealing!

    Mrs. S, isn’t that the best back cover blurb ever? lol

  13. May 19, 2008 10:57 am

    Gotta love a rec that tells me to stop reading. hee hee.

  14. May 19, 2008 12:06 pm

    I’m more than sold! To my RIP III list this goes.

    PS: The BookDepository is sending another copy of Odd and the Frost Giants your way. Both Andi and Chelsea got their books, so yours really must have been lost. Hopefully this time it will make it there safely, but let me know if it hasn’t arrived in two weeks. And again, sorry about this whole mess and the delay!

  15. May 19, 2008 1:34 pm

    Loved it, and “The Haunting of Hill House” is even better and scarier. Get it and read it immediately, Eva!

    Shirley Jackson was totally awesome.

  16. May 19, 2008 2:44 pm

    I did stop reading when you gave the spoiler signal because I am most definitely going to read this book. I haven’t read Shirley Jackson for years! Thanks for reminding me of the spell she casts so well.

  17. trish permalink
    May 20, 2008 10:52 am

    I guess I’m not the only one that didn’t read your whole post so I can pick up the book fresh! Maybe it’ll show up on bookmooch soon…

  18. May 20, 2008 10:55 am

    Care, lol. I just that is kind of weird. :)

    Nymeth, yay! I’ll definitely let you know when the Gaiman arrives. My postal system lately has completely sucked.

    Chartroose, I will!

    TJ, I hope you enjoy it!

    Trish, good luck w/ bookmooch. :D

  19. May 21, 2008 7:04 pm

    This sounds like a good title to save for the RIP3 Challenge. I’ll make note of it.

  20. July 14, 2008 11:15 am

    Well, between this review and (Books I Done Read’s) I’m sold. (and I was good I stopped reading yours when you told me too!) This has gone on the old Bookmooch Wishlist.

  21. July 23, 2008 8:26 am

    After reading your review and the review at Books I Done Read, I requested it from the library, finished it last night. It unsettled me in a creepy after-taste kind of way where things don’t jump out at you in the sense of scary novels/movies, but in a way that seeps into your mind when you’re in the dark, waiting to fall asleep.

  22. August 18, 2008 7:12 am

    I’ve been meaning to write about We Have Always Lived in the Castle for ages – it’s simply brilliant. I don’t like horror books, but this uneasy, gothic-inspired, very clever novel is one of my favourites. I agree with everything you say, especially about the control Jackson has over the narrator and the readers’ changing response to her.

  23. October 15, 2008 1:02 pm

    I also read this as an R.I.P. read and I am so very glad that I did as it’s a really, really good book. Not at all what I expected (but then I don’t really know what I expected) but well worth getting hold of. I am going to have to go on a Shirley Jackson library hunt tomorrow!

  24. Carrie permalink
    November 26, 2012 9:40 pm

    With regard to your second point I world include Uncle Julian along with Constance as good. Hé was mentally ill due to thé arsenic. Earlier conversations with his brother John showed him to be à person with values. Hé states That his brother placed too much importance on objects. Many other examples are évident.

  25. Cassie permalink
    February 23, 2013 6:38 pm

    I hadn’t even thought about the repercussions for Constance until just now. I was so into Mary Katherine’s narration that I completely lost sight of everything else. Thank you, thank you, for pointing that out. I’m going to write my review, but I wanted to see what other writers said first.


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