Friday, February 22, 2013

Book Review - Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Published by: Library of America
Publication Date: 1962
Format: Hardcover, 832 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy
"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!"

Mary Katherine Blackwood, called Merricat, and her sister Constance, have lived their life for the past six years shut away from the world caring for their Uncle Julian. Their only other companion is Merricat's cat Jonas. Merricat is the only one ever to leave the house, on Tuesdays and Fridays, which are bad days. As she walks to the store she can feel the eyes watching her. A good tip into town is one with minimal contact with the outside world, a bad trip is one that ends in taunting. The three remaining Blackwoods have been beyond the bounds of society behind the fence that Constance and Merricat's father erected before that fateful and fatal dinner. Constance was arrested six years ago because she was the only one who didn't use the sugar laced with the cyanide. Constance was the only one to survive that dinner without any aftereffects... Julian survived, but he was never able to walk again and his mind wanders, though that night never leaves him. Julian is dedicating what remains of his life to recount that final day. The day when he lost four of his family members, one of them his wife.

The aftermath of Constance's acquittal, despite everyone believing in her guilt, was that she shut out the world. Connie never ventures past her garden anymore. She spends her time cooking and looking after her two charges, keeping the world locked out. Merricat is just as paranoid of others as Constance, but she has buried treasure and symbolic items scattered throughout their land in a type of rustic magic to ward off everyone. One day she finds that her wards have failed and at that moment there is a knock on the door. Their cousin Charles has arrived. His branch of the Blackwoods severed all connections at the time of the trial, not even willing to take Merricat in, that night she was sent to bed without dinner and though it saved her life, it meant she was banished to an orphanage for a time. Charles does not have the best of intentions. He is avaricious, only seeing the money in everything and in his alliance with Connie, Julian and Merricat are just obstacles to move out of his way, nothing more. But Merricat won't go down without a fight. She has a feeling that it will be her left in the house with Constance, not Charles. Charles should remember, bad things have been known to happen to members of the Blackwood family.

This book is the most terrifying and accurate story of paranoia I think I have ever read. There's a part of me that is very antisocial and would rather be left to my books. I have easily gone a week without leaving the house and I can see some things in Merricat that I can relate to in her OCD behaviours. Yet, I find that this book has kind of cured me of all those feelings, at least on a cognitive level. All paranoia and agoraphobia has to face the test of implementation. It's all well and good to think you're ok, but you never know though until you try. Constance does try, but such a man as Charles as her "saviour" could never work, I was hoping he might go the way of the previous Blackwood, though more painfully, and Constance has Merricat. Merricat is 18 in this book, yet her behaviour is more like that of a 12 year old, her emotional development and well being stunted when the poisoning happened. Constance wonders if she was right to shut Merricat away from the world, but it seems to me a mutual decision. Merricat, despite being more willing to leave the house, is really suffering more, and very much a sociopath. She has far more rituals and dark thoughts than Constance ever had. There is the rigid schedule to maintain, there are the coins buried in the river bank, the doll under the rock, the blue marbles, and the book that was nailed to the tree. Even when Merricat isn't checking on them her thoughts dwell on the powers these items give her, the layer of protection she has. Like a person who has to turn the light on and off so many times before leaving, Merricat's life is built around these rituals that have evolved around her to protect the two sisters, who, despite everything, deeply love each other.

Yet, while their isolation from the world seems odd and haunting, it is not without cause. The villagers, more than the crime, made them what they are, or at least exacerbated the situation enough to cause them to turn inward. Coming to the house, taunting, cat calling, daring each other to go to the house where everyone died. Asking Connie to come out so they can see what a mass murderer looks like. "Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?" Childish glee in their hatred of the hoity-toity and reclusive sisters is evident in the villagers. At the end of the book, when the villagers have to reluctantly help the sisters, they take the opportunity to unleash their "everyday evil." Because the poisoning only hurt the immediate family, while the bile that is brewing in the town has far greater scope. The mob mentality of people who appear normal is a far scarier thing than two agoraphobic girls peering through slits in the windows at a life they will never have nor want.


The review reminded me that I've always intended to read more Shirley Jackson stories, but then I had to stop reading for fear of spoilers!

Oi, I try not to spoil (much). You should pick up this edition of the book, it's awesome. So many of her short stories, including the big three (Lottery/Haunting of Hill House/We Have Always Lived in the Castle).

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