Saturday, April 22, 2017

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

I found a nest of baby snakes near the creek and killed them all; I dislike snakes and Constance had never asked me not to.  I was on my way back to the house when I found a very bad omen, one of the worst.  My book nailed to a tree in the pine woods had fallen down.  I decided that the nail had rusted away and the book--it was a little notebook of our fathers, where he used to record the names of people who owed him money, and people who ought, he thought, to do favors for him--was useless now as protection.  I had wrapped it very thoroughly in heavy paper before nailing it to the tree, but the nail had rusted and it had fallen.  I thought I had better destroy it, in case it was now actively bad, and bring something else out to the tree, perhaps a scarf of our mother's, or a glove.  It was really too late, although I did not know it then; he was already on his way to the house.  By the time I found the book he had probably already left his suitcase in the post office and was asking directions.

The Blackwoods are hated in town.  When the youngest, Mary Katherine--Merricat, to her sister Constance and Uncle Julian--descends from their isolated mansion to do the shopping, she's jeered at and threatened.  As it turns out, the townspeoples' antipathy can be traced back to the murder of most of the Blackwood family by arsenic poisoning, a crime that Constance was acquitted for many years ago.  Constance is too afraid of the public eye to go out, and old Uncle Julian is confined to his wheelchair, poring over his memoirs which describe the night of the fateful murders.  Into this hermetic household comes a distant cousin, Charles, whom Merricat distrusts, and rightly so, since he seems to be mostly after the Blackwood riches.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a slim but creepy little book, which succeeds because of the strength of the voice of Merricat's narration.  Merricat is devoted to Constance, and employs a number of different forms of sympathetic magic to protect her from the roiling anger of the townspeople.  Books nailed to trees, silver dollars buried in the field.  She treats her cat Jonas like a mercurial human, and we early begin to suspect that it might not have been the guileless, naive Constance who slipped the arsenic into the food of her family many years ago.

In many ways, We Have Always Lived in the Castle seems like an old-school Gothic novel, the kind that passed out of fashion in the 20th century.  Jackson leans into the melodramatic and the sinister, but the novel never seems as silly as it might, because of the careful, attentive detail given to Merricat and her many totems.  The plot avoids heading in the direction you might suspect--Merricat murdering Charles--and instead uses Charles' presence in the house as a kind of spark to ignite the latent tensions between the Blackwoods and the town around them, to great effect.  In fact, the novel reminded me of no one so much as that other master of 20th century Gothic, Daphne du Maurier, and the final chapter of the book borrows one of its most intense dramatic elements from Rebecca, who borrowed it in turn from Jane Eyre.  Except--time for the spoiler alert--when the house burns down, unlike du Maurier and Bronte, Jackson has her two sisters go on living there, happy in the ruins of their former glory, because they only need each other.

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