Thursday, October 04, 2018

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson

Straight on from her Dark Tales, I've ploughed through Shirley Jackson's final (and greatest, says the back cover) novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962).

It's told by 18 year-old Mary Kate Blackwood, known to everyone as "Merricat", a strange, scared girl with much to be afraid of. To begin, we follow her on an essential, regular trip into town to shop for food, where she must endure the mostly passive tyranny of ordinary people. It's incredibly effective, a threat that feels horribly real. Only once we've experienced and felt it does Jackson reveal why: almost all of Merricat's family died six years ago, poisoned by arsenic intentionally put in the sugar bowl.

Merricat now lives in the old family house with her agarophobic elder sister Constance - acquitted of the murder but still generally thought guilty - and her uncle Julian, who survived the poisoning at some cost. Wheelchair-bound and mentally disturbed, he's determined to uncover what really happened that night... Merricat is the only one to ever leave the family home, and her head is full of strange thoughts about magic ways to protect the house and also journeys to the Moon.

Into this unsettling space comes cousin Charles, who soon casts a spell over Constance and threatens the whole household. But he's just one of many tensions: the townspeople are never far away, and Merricat is herself bound by all kinds of rules - things she seems innately to know she is not allowed to do. The immaculate, ordered domestic space is a place beset with danger.

As in the Dark Tales, Jackson makes this strange situation so credible. In her afterword to the Penguin Classics edition, Joyce Carol Oates speaks of Jackson's own agoraphobia and says:
"Jackson's difficulties with her fellow citizens in North Bennington, Vermont are well documented in Judy Oppenheimer's harrowing biography, Private Demons (1988): the suggestion is that Jackson and her husband, the flamboyant 'Jewish-intellectual' cultural critic Stanley Edgar Hyman aroused resentment, if not outright anti-Semitism, in their more convention neighbours." 
Joyce Carol Oates, afterword to We Have Always Lived in the Castle, p. 152.
I think Jackson drawns on more than her own experience of real horror, too. There's repeated mention of a figurine, an object that survives a fire in the house. It's surely significant that it's always described as the "Dresden figurine", conjuring images of another conflagration.

The fire involves the most chilling moment of the whole novel. We know the townspeople are antagonistic to the Blackwoods, but in a moment of crisis the local men rush to help put out the fire. Only then, emerging from the house to the expectant crowd, the head of the men picks up a stone and throws it back at the building to smash a window. It gives licence to the mob, who stampede on the house...

Whatever the strange and murderous qualities of the household, it's the ordinary people outside who are most to be feared. 

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