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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Recently, as a kind of lingering bit of Helluva Halloween, I read Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I read it purely on cover appeal alone. I mean, look at that ----->
It's so evocative. I just had to.
The cover doesn't disappoint. It matches the tone perfectly.

But first:

"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."

We Have Always Lived in the Castle tells the story of the Blackwoods, a hill-country family more well-off than their neighbors, and maybe just a little more off than them, too. Told from the POV of 18 year old Mary Katherine Blackwood, the youngest, we learn that the remaining Blackwoods -- Merricat, her older sister, Constance, invalid Uncle Julian, and Jonas the cat -- are shunned by the townsfolk to the point of Frankensteinian pitch-fork crazy.
Mary Katherine, or Merricat, as she is called, is a thoroughly fascinating character. She reads like I Capture the Castle's Cassandra Mortmain if she were maybe OCD and slightly disturbed. In fact, the whole thing reads like the Mortmains with a dash of gothic crazy thrown in. Through Merricat, it is slowly revealed that the reason the Blackwoods are shunned, and the reason there are only three left, is because the rest of the family was poisoned over dinner six years prior -- and Constance stood trial for it. Now, they keep to themselves in their secluded house with agoraphobic zeal, with Merricat making dreaded weekly trips into town for supplies.
They could go on this way forever, avoiding people, avoiding life, living in Merricat's fantasies -- until a visitor comes and things will never be the same.

So, that's the basic story, without giving too much away. What I loved about this, what I found absolutely compelling, was the tone of this story. Jackson, known for her insanely famous tale "The Lottery," is a master of tone. Her stories always seem to have a presence; you can feel them in the room with you. Everything about Merricat's world seems present and ominous and dangerous. The town has a presence, the forest and fields have a presence, the Blackwood house -- more so than anything -- has a presence. In only 200 or so pages, Jackson makes everything come alive, which is an impressive feat.

Merricat, as the narrator, is quirky and volatile and possibly brilliant. She is very much haunted and slightly odd, and as the reader, you become completely absorbed in Merricat's view: you know the world is against you, and you find yourself going along with the things she does. It's easy to root for Merricat, even when you start to doubt her. The peripheral characters are fascinating and difficult and compelling.

In short, if you can handle a healthy dose of weird and/or crazy, this slim story pulls no punches. Definitely add it to your list (Halloween-time reading is recommended).

Bonus Materials:

The townsfolk's taunt:
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!

Read this article about We Have Always Lived in the Castle making it to the big screen soon...

Read Jackson's short story "The Lottery"

Reviews around the blogosphere:
"I became so enthralled with the setting of this book. The very atmosphere of it, I think, held me captive and I loved the relationship between the sisters, Merricat and Constance. It is very simple and felt familiar somehow."
from 5 Squared

"First off, this is the most damn disturbing book I’ve read in along time, and in so many ways as well, not just for the story as unfolds and spills it’s secrets, but also for the way you begin to care (and sometimes root) for people you really, really, shouldn’t."
from Bart's Bookshelf

"This story explores the evils of the human mind - sometimes much more frightening than ghoulies, ghosties, vampires, and all other things that go bump in the night.

This book examines what happens when a family is shattered and the truth is held back too long. The fear and anxiety of the sisters combined with the hostility, blunt rage, and inhumanity of the villagers makes this a compelling novel."
from Well-Mannered Frivolity


  1. I'm definitely going to have to check this out. I love weird and crazy!
    Merricat sounds like both of those. :-)

  2. She reads like I Capture the Castle's Cassandra Mortmain if she were maybe OCD and slightly disturbed.

    .... WHERE HAS THIS BOOK BEEN ALL MY LIFE?!!?! Excuse me, must make some online orders now.

  3. I totally need to read I Capture the Castle as well.

  4. I've just read this book for the first time this year as well and that first paragraph, particulary the third sentence is what compelled me to do so. It's just brilliant.

  5. Awesome review, Misty! Is this a hoistorical novel? It sounds like it, and it puts me off. I can handle crazy, but can I hand a prim-and-proper-lady's crazy? I'm not sure.

  6. Not so much historical. It was contemporary (ish) when it was written, but I would say it's likely the 40s. Maybe slightly earlier, maybe slightly later, but there are cars and phones and such, and they don't wear corsets or bustles or anything. ;p

  7. i have only ever read the lottery and that was in school. yes, i admit it is a doozy and a great classic short. must read more shirley. love the bit about gothic craziness thrown in.

  8. Thanks for quoting me, Misty. That's so sweet and of course I don't mind at all.
    An amazing review you did, btw!


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