It’s taken me long enough to get around to reading the novel considered to be Shirley Jackson’s masterpiece, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but it was well worth the wait.
How could it be otherwise when the novel begins with one of the strangest introductions to a narrator I’ve come across in a long while.
My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old and I live with my 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 Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.
Amidst the humdrum detail about hygiene and dogs there are some clues in that mention of deadly fungus that this is a dark and strange novel. And it gets darker and stranger once we learn that the reason “everyone else in our family is dead” is because they were the victims of poisoning six years previously. Someone put arsenic into the sugar bowl and then the family sprinkled it on their fruit dessert.
Mary Katherine (known as Merricat) survived because she’d been sent to bed as punishment for some misdemeanour or other so never partook of the family dinner that claimed the lives of her parents, an aunt and her brother. Her elderly uncle Julian did eat the poisoned sugar but fortunately only in a small quantity so he survived while Constance who didn’t ingest any sugar was arrested for, though eventually acquitted of, the crime. Now the remaining three members live in isolation in a large rambling house out of the sight of villagers. Constance hasn’t left their home since her acquittal while Uncle Julian, confined to a wheelchair, obsessively writes and re-writes notes for his memoirs about his relatives’ deaths. It’s left to Merricat to brave the hostility of suspicious villagers when she does the weekly grocery shopping and visits the library, their taunting song ringing in her ears as she passes:
“Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!”
It’s a peaceful if restricted existence disrupted by the arrival of cousin Charles, a man against whom Merricat takes an instant dislike because she suspects he is visiting only to get his hands on the family’s money. When she thinks Constance is failling for his charms, she plots the several ways in which she could get rid of him.
I could turn him into a fly and drop him into a spider’s web and watch him tangled and helpless and struggling, shut into the body of a dying buzzing fly; I could wish him dead until he died. I could fasten him to a tree and keep him there until he grew into the trunk and bark grew over his mouth. I could bury him in the hole where my box of silver dollars had been so safe until he came; if he was under the ground I could walk over him stamping my feet.
The revenge she eventually enacts is rather more dangerous than turning him into an insect. It brings the wrath of the whole village against the sisters, culminating in violence and pushing them even further into reclusiveness.
Jackson tells this story in a style that’s sparing yet evocative using a narrator who is an arch deceiver. She’s childlike in her belief that she can protect her family with lucky days and magic rituals which include burying relics and nailing items to trees. She spends her days parading the boundaries of their home marking it out with fetishes and totems made from scraps and trinkets. Yet she is a perceptive commentator on the people and places that surround her. On her trip into the village she observes:
In this village men stayed young and did the gossiping and he women aged wih grey evil weariness and stood silently waiting for the men to get up and come home.
All of the village was of a piece, a time, and a style; it was as though the people needed the ugliness of the village, and fed on it. The houses and the stores seemed to have been set up in contemptuous haste to provide shelter for the drab and the unpleasant.
Together Merricat and Shirley Jackson lead readers a merry dance with a trail of clues about the events of that night six years previously. Who did put the arsenic into the sugar bowl? Why did Constance wash out the sugar bowl before the police arrived, on the pretext there was a spider in it? It’s not until the book is almost over that the truth is revealed.
In true Gothic traditionWe Have Always Lived in the Castle features a rambling ruin of a house and a tyrranical figure in the form of cousin Charles. It does have a haunting quality but there are no chain-rattling ghosts or spectral figures. Jackson is too fine a writer to resort to such devices. Yet We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a disturbing, unsettling novel, maybe even more so because of the very absence of those devices. It’s as if the largely domestic focus makes the events more disquieting, particularly when you force yourself to stop being seduced by Merricat’s tomboy persona and begin to wonder about her true nature.
To say more however would spoil the pleasure of reading this book for others.
About this book: We Have Always Lived in the Castle was Jackson’s final work and was published three years before her death in 1965. It was named by Time magazine as one of the “Ten Best Novels” of 1962. The first film version is due for release later in 2017.
About the author: Shirley Hardie Jackson was born in San Fransisco in 1916. Her first novel, The Road Through the Wall was publised in 1948. Also published in 1948 was the story The Lottery which established her reputation as a master of the horror tale. Although popular and well regarded during her lifetime, the 1980s saw more scholarly interest in Jackson’s work and her influence on other writers become more appreciate (she has been cited as an influence on a diverse set of authors, including Neil Gaiman and Stephen King) . According to the post-feminist critic Elaine Showalter, Jackson’s work is the single most important mid-twentieth-century body of literary output yet to have its value reevaluated by critics in the present day. She died in 1965.
Why I read this book: Quite simply it’s one that regularly appeared on blog sites as a highly recommended novel. It was one of my #20booksofsummer books and is on my Classics Club list. I’m now encouraged to read her other landmark text – The Haunting of Hill House published in 1959.