Friday, October 14, 2011

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

I put off reading Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle for a long time because I built it up so much, & the anticipation was fun. The longer I waited, the more I was sure it was going to be an amazing book. The building up was totally unprovoked. No one had told me it was a great book; in fact, a friend who posted it on Goodreads gave it just three stars. The buildup came from the fact that it's one of the best titles I've ever heard, I enjoyed Jackson's story "The Lottery" however many years ago I read it, & after receiving a copy of the freaking gorgeous Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition (pictured directly below), I was even more convinced it had to be great. Yeah, I totally judge books by their covers. 

I've posted three covers, by the way, because this book has a beautiful cover history all around. Not many old books (Castle was first published in 1962 and was Jackson's last book) can say that. So anyway, I finally read it. This book is everything I love: It's off-putting, it's unnerving, it's dark, it's weird, it's somehow charming. It's a horror story without being overtly scary. The horror is in the characters Jackson portrays. The book's narrator is 18-year-old Mary Katherine Blackwood, or Merricat, who lives with her sister Constance & Uncle Julian in a large house, empty of the rest of their family who were poisoned with arsenic years before. Constance hasn't left the house since then, Merricat braves the leery townspeople to keep the house stocked with supplies, & doddering Julian writes & rewrites notes about the family's last days.    

It's hard to imagine two scarier characters in literature than Merricat & Constance, & much of this is due to the fact that they seem so innocent. Their quiet, mundane life in isolation isn't peaceful, just ominous, as Merricat is constantly alluding to the upcoming "last day." Merricat is 18 & Constance is 28, but they both feel much younger, 13 or 14, like they've been in arrested development since their parents died. Merricat is one of the most brilliantly written protagonists I've ever encountered. She's superstitious and believes in magic, though this reads almost as more of a severe case of obsessive-compulsive disorder, since she ritualizes everything. Her thoughts are sometimes frantic, she slips into near-hallucinations, and she gives off a constant aura of danger. Being stuck in her head for the duration of the book is a scary place to be. Yet in her head, her madness is justifiable - inviting almost. Constance mothers her. They adore each other, & their happy home life is disturbed by the entrance of Cousin Charles, who's got his eye on the family's money.

While the underlying question for much of the book is, of course, "Who poisoned the family?", when we finally find out, it's almost secondarily of interest, because so much more has been put on the line. How is Merricat going to get rid of Charles, whom she distrusts & hates? Whose side is Constance, who's smitten with Charles, going to choose? How long can Uncle Julian stick around in poor health? How will Merricat react to the major upheaval that's coming? Are the townspeople, who love to persecute the Blackwoods, going to do something drastic? The whole book is a question of "us versus them," but which side is the safe one? Are these girls ever going to live a happy, normal life again? Do we even want them to? Do they deserve it?

This book is absolutely unforgettable - the ending is chilling - & worth a million rereads. Merricat's almost fevered thoughts read like dark poetry. I'll leave you with one of my favorite sentences, & hope that you'll be intrigued enough to pick it up yourself. Oh & one last thing: If you do get the Penguin edition, don't read the introduction until after you read the book! It's excellent, but it gives away everything!

Like children hunting for shells, or two old ladies going through dead leaves looking for pennies, we shuffled along the kitchen floor with our feet, turning over broken trash to find things which were still whole, and useful.

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