Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Book 5: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Gotta get this review in quick - there are cookies to be baked!

Shirley Jackson knows how to weave a spooky tale. She is, of course, best known for her short story "The Lottery," a tale that showed that underneath our modern veneer lies an uncivilized and barbaric heart. In her novel "We Have Always Lived in the Castle," Jackson again shows how society can take its toll on the individual as she tells the tale of sisters Mary Katherine and Constance Blackwood. This time, she explores the lengths to which one will go to protect oneself from the dangers of the world... and from other people.

Mary Katherine, or Merricat as her sister calls her, and Constance live in the secluded Blackwood manor with their disabled Uncle Julian. They are ostracized from the nearby village due to a highly publicized tragedy that occurred six years ago. Their family is dead from poisoning (arsenic in the sugar at dinnertime), for which Constance was arrested, tried, and found not guilty. Despite this verdict, the townspeople of the village believe she got away with murder, and so Constance has become agoraphobic and shut away in her home, away from gossiping villagers. She spends her days cooking and cleaning and taking care of Uncle Julian, who is in a wheelchair and suffers dementia possibly as a side effect of arsenic poisoning (he is the lone survivor - Constance never took any poison, nor did Merricat, who had been sent to bed without supper that night). She and her sister have their routines - they do not like change. No one is allowed into the house except close family friends: people who were close to their parents and still drop by for tea - perhaps to keep up appearances, but most likely to gawk at the house and its odd inhabitants.

The story is told in Merricat's voice. Merricat spends her days burying things for fun; running with her cat, Jonas; and thinking of ways to protect her sister and their home from the hateful villagers. She seems to believe in magical thinking - she chooses words that she cannot speak aloud, and by not saying them, she can prevent changes from happening. Also, she has talismans to prevent others from breeching the safety of their home - for example, she nails a book of her father's to a tree to "protect" them. One day, she notices that the book has fallen off the tree, and she immediately recognizes this as a bad omen.

Their safe, routine lives are disrupted by the sudden appearance of a distant cousin, Charles Blackwood. He is allowed into the house, as he is family, but Merricat does not want him to upset the balance of their home. It is clear that Charles is seeking the rumored Blackwood fortune. His presence seems to wake Constance to the fact that they have been in hiding all these years, and as she starts to think about going back out into the world, Merricat becomes more and more distressed. She decides to find a way to drive him out, but her actions have powerful consequences and spell doom for all the Blackwoods.

I don't want to give too much away, because I thought this was a fantastic novel. I definitely recommend it to anyone who likes a good spooky, creepy read. Jackson knows how to draw you in with only a few sentences, and she can weave a tale in under 200 pages that will stick with you for days. (Unlike, say, Stephen King, who drones on and on for 1000s of pages... edit, man, edit!) And she could teach today's horror writers a thing or two about being scary or creepy without being gory and violent (cough King cough - am I bitter or what?). She sets the mood early in the story, with the very first chapter that describes a typical venture into town for groceries, and carries it all the way through the tragic ending.

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