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