Shirley Jackson is an author who has been on my radar for quite some time but whose books I never got around to reading until now. And I am so glad I did.
I started with We Have Always Lived in the Castle, the last novel she wrote and published, and what a fabulous book it turned out to be.
The first chapter in We Have Always Lived in the Castle is brilliant. Here’s how it opens and draws the reader in…
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 my family is dead.
Mary Katherine (Merricat) Blackwood is walking to the village to borrow books from the library and buy supplies from the grocery store. Merricat lives on Blackwood Farm with her elder sister Constance and their Uncle Julian. Constance is uncomfortable going beyond the confines of their home (possibly due to agoraphobia) and Uncle Julian is quite frail both physically and mentally.
So the task of doing the grocery shopping falls on Merricat. It is a ritual she follows every week, but not something that she enjoys doing. The reason is all too clear. She hates bumping into the villagers, who jeer at her and pass comments behind her back. The children are even worse as they chant strange rhymes when she walks past.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.
Already the reader is aware that something is amiss and feels a bit of the fear that Merricat is experiencing.
Why do the villagers behave the way they do? The answer lies in a gruesome incident that occurred in the Blackwood family six years ago. The sisters’ parents, aunt and younger brother die of arsenic poisoning when having dinner at the family home and Constance is charged for this crime. Merricat is not present then, and Uncle Julian manages to survive.
Due to lack of evidence, Constance is acquitted, but the stigma surrounding the Blackwood sisters remains. Fearing the taunts of people outside, the three of them lead a solitary existence in their home, and rarely mix with outsiders.
Some of the wealthier inhabitants in the village do make the effort keep in touch. One of them is Helen Clarke who visits the sisters every Friday for tea.
The elder sister Constance comes across as a gentle person and keeps herself busy by cleaning the house and cooking scrumptious meals for the family. Uncle Julian is gradually losing his faculties and is obsessed with the details of that fateful day when the Blackwood family was poisoned. He is jotting it all down in his papers hoping to publish it as a book.
But the star of the book is really Merricat. As a narrator, she is very strange and fascinating; traits which are accentuated by her skewed and childlike way of viewing the world at large. For the most part it feels as though we are reading the narrative of a child only to be reminded that Merricat is actually a young adult of eighteen.
Merricat adores Constance and is fiercely protective of their simple and solitary way of living. She indulges in her own make-believe world, a world to which she will one day be transported and find some modicum of safety and happiness. Here she is talking to Constance…
“On the moon we have everything. Lettuce, and pumpkin pie and Amanita phalloides. We have cat-furred plants and horses dancing with their wings. All the locks are solid and tight, and there are no ghosts. On the moon Uncle Julian would be well and the sun would shine every day. You would wear our mother’s pearls and sing, and the sun would shine all the time.”
Her life is made up of routines that involve going to the market, helping Constance with the cleaning, running wild and spending time by herself on the vast family property, the cat Jonas being her only companion.
Merricat’s limited world is made up of superstitions. She believes chanting certain words or smashing mirrors will ward off evil influences on the family. She leaves totems around the family property all in a childish effort to seal the family off from strangers.
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.
Until one day Merricat’s world is shaken up when their cousin Charles Blackwood shows up. This sparks off a chain of events that disrupt the lives of all the three inhabitants of the house.
Charles had only gotten in because the magic was broken; if I could re-seal the protection around Constance and shut Charles out he would have to leave the house. Every touch he made on the house must be erased.
The two sisters are both different and similar at the same time. Constance in some sense is the grown up as she buries herself in the comfort of preparing meals and doing household chores. Merricat is the untamed one, as she spends considerable time outdoors even sleeping in the woods in her secret hiding place sometimes. And yet they are similar – both shun outside contact, while at the same time find solace in everyday rituals.
All the Blackwood women had taken the food that came from the ground and preserved it, and the deeply coloured rows of jellies and pickles and bottled vegetables and fruit, maroon and amber and dark rich green stood side by side in our cellar and would stand there forever, a poem by the Blackwood women. Each year Constance and Uncle Julian and I had jam or preserve and pickle that Constance had made, but we never touched what belonged to the others; Constance said it would kill us if we ate it.
Even though this is an unsettling novel, Jackson expertly sprinkles doses of dark humour. There are two set pieces which are particularly wonderful and both of them involve Uncle Julian. The first is in the early pages when Helen Clarke visits the Blackwoods for the customary Friday tea. This time she brings another guest unannounced – the meek Mrs Wright. Mrs Wright, against her better judgement and manners, is fascinated by the poisoning case and Uncle Julian sensing this exploits her curiosity to maximum effect. The other set piece involves Charles, the two sisters and Uncle Julian where the latter feels threatened that Charles is out to destroy his beloved papers. These flashes of comedy are perfect in relieving some moments of claustrophobia.
There are two themes that are strongly on display in the novel.
The first is how badly conventional society perceives those who are cut from a different cloth largely labelling them as outcasts. It’s a society riddled with prejudices where people who deviate from certain accepted norms are not looked upon kindly.
The novel also examines how as individuals we can be resistant to change and the degree to which we will react if we feel threatened. We see this in Merricat’s behaviour who will go to any lengths to preserve her distorted ideal of family happiness.
Jackson’s writing is simply brilliant. She is great at creating atmosphere that is seeped in gothic elements – the creeping sense of dread as we read about the fate of the Blackwood sisters in their large home – even if there are no actual ghosts present. Her dialogues also crackle as does her penchant for wit.
In my Library of America edition of Jackson’s work, there is a chronology of her writing and personal life which makes for fascinating reading. At the time of writing this novel, Jackson was essentially housebound and in frail health, and I can’t help but think that some of what she was experiencing possibly found its way into this book.
Indeed, I can firmly say that We Have Always Lived in the Castle will easily find a place in my ‘Best of’ list this year.