“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!”
My sister’s eyes bulged when I read that section aloud to her. And eye-bulging was pretty much my primary state of being as well while reading Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Mental eye-bulging, at least. There was horrified eye-bulging, amused eye-bulging, and also wow-Shirley-Jackson-is-totally-my-kind-of-writer eye-bulging.
Because Shirley Jackson is totally my kind of writer. She achieves horror without being dramatic, unease without being disgusting, and humor without seeming like she’s overreaching. Basically, she struck the perfect Gothic chord with me.
There are only a few major players in this novel. First, there’s Merricat. Or Mary Katherine Blackwood as she is more formally known. She’s quite placid, reclusive and dreams of living on the moon. She is someone whom you start rooting for from the start, but then begin to question as you move through the story. In other words, she’s the best kind of protagonist:
“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.”
And then there’s Merricat’s older sister, Constance. As you can guess from that little rhyme up above, hers isn’t exactly the squeakiest of clean relationships. In fact, she has been acquitted of murdering the majority of the Blackwood family, whose undoing was arsenic in the sugar.
Constance and Merricat both live with their Uncle Julian, the only family member to have survived that tragic day (aside from Merricat, who was lucky enough to escape as she’d been sent up to bed without her dinner). Uncle Julian, besides possessing a few loose screws, is also trying to document every single detail of that fateful night.
“You will see at once how the dinner revolves around my niece. It was early summer, her garden was doing well – the weather was lovely that year, I recall; we have not seen such another summer since, or perhaps I am only getting older. We relied upon Constance for various small delicacies which only she could provide; I am of course not referring to arsenic.”
Despite his loose screws, Uncle Julian does utter some of the funnier lines in the novel, and does it with such dryness and panache that I couldn’t help but chuckle several times. I’m never sure if he did it on purpose, though I suppose that itself was part of the fun.
Unsurprisingly the three remaining Blackwoods have chosen to cocoon themselves in their manor, and isolated themselves from the rest of the village (aside from the weekly trips that Merricat has to make for groceries). There is absolutely no love lost between the Blackwood family and the conservative, narrow-minded village-folk. They foster a flimsy veneer of smarmy ‘respect’ while their real contempt manifests itself in hateful rhymes as concocted by their children. The book opens with Merricat’s walk into the village, and the hate and pain she feels is so palpable that I inevitably started to feel the same way, too.
“I always thought about rot when I came toward the row of stores; I thought about burning black painful rot that ate away from inside, hurting dreadfully. I wished it on the village. . . . .I thought of them rotting away and curling in pain and crying out loud; I wanted them doubled up and crying on the ground in front of me.”
Jackson pretty much has the reader by the string, because for much of the novel you start to realize that there is absolutely no one you can trust for a reliable narrative. Things become more complicated when Cousin Charles enters the picture, all benevolent and intent on repairing old family feuds, while doing a pathetic job of masking his drooling reverence for their family fortune. He and Merricat do not get along – Charles is convinced that they should no longer be locking themselves away, while Merricat is determined more than ever that she, Constance and Uncle Julian will end up living on the moon.
As I said, the cast isn’t huge, and plot isn’t a complicated one. Nevertheless, Jackson manages to infuse the story with enough tension that you can feel the shift in power dynamics within the small number of players. Once Charles entered the scene, I knew I didn’t want him to win, but I didn’t know by then if I wanted Merricat to win either. Or Constance. Or Uncle Julian.
The writing is lucid, but at times Jackson describes the most surreal of moments that it’s quite disorientating. In a good way, though.
“We eat the year away. We eat the spring and the summer and the fall. We wait for something to grow and then we eat it.”
I loved her writing! I LOVE her writing. I am in love with Shirley Jackson’s writing. I want to roll around in it. It’s perfect. While you’re reading it, you don’t really think about it. It flows so well – the word ‘seamless’ seems to have been invented for Jackson. She is the mistress of seamlessness! I am on a bit of a Jackson high (as you may, or may not be able to tell.) Her writing is very simple at first glance, but there is nothing simple about that perfect blend of normality and surrealism, the combination of reason and madness that permeates the most of this book.
“On Sunday mornings I examined my safeguards, the box of silver dollars I had buried by the creek, and the doll buried in the long field, and the book nailed to the tree in the pine woods; so long as they were where I had put them nothing could get in to harm us. . . . All our land was enriched with my treasures buried in it, thickly inhabited just below the surface with my marbles and my teeth and my coloured stones, all perhaps turned to jewels by now, held together under the ground in a powerful taut web which never loosened, but held fast to guard us.”
Once I’d completed the novel, I felt as if I had to reread it. One reading simply didn’t seem enough. No doubt that a second, third or even fourth reading will leave me dredging up some new detail from this particular work of Jackson. And to be completely honest, I look forward to it.