The Monday Book: WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE by Shirley Jackson

WeHaveAlwaysLivedInTheCastle“A pretty sight, a lady with a book.” –Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle

The problem with being a big reader in school is that by the time you get to classes where the teacher is passing out big books (or even big concept stories) you’ve seen that theme/archetype/trope/chestnut already in something else.

Our high school English teacher made us read “The Lottery,” by Shirley Jackson, for Halloween. Lame. And old hat. Ursula LeGuin in “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” or even Tam Lin and the sacrifice to Hell were better deals.

So when I picked up Jackson’s Castle, I wasn’t expecting much.

That’s how the best things happen.

Aside from first learning of the wonderful name MerriCat for Mary Katherine, this is the book that teaches many writers about untrustworthy narrators. The story is basically two sisters, MerriCat and Constance, living alone in an old house, young girls, and slowly but surely you come to find out why. And then everything goes to Hell on the point of a knife, but it’s a good ride. Here’s another quote, just to give you an idea:

“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.”

Yeah, she’s a beaut, that Merricat. Jackson’s writing style is so cheerfully prosaic as she pushes out lines of such blood-curdling creepiness, you think, “Who WRITES like this?” For instance, when MerriCat idly comments: “I wonder if I could eat a child if I had the chance.’ ‘I doubt if I could cook one,’ said Constance.”

If you want a post-Halloween scare, read this atmospheric, quirky, Poe-as-a-woman-with-a-semblance-of-feminine-understanding masterpiece.

If you read it before bed, you might want to leave the light on. And stop taking sugar in your tea.

Why this book this week: I read this book years ago, and picked it up again when some bookseller friends and I were discussing online what we were currently reading.

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6 Comments

Filed under between books, Big Stone Gap, book reviews, Downton Abbey, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, publishing, reading, Sarah Nelson, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch, writing

6 responses to “The Monday Book: WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE by Shirley Jackson

  1. Linda Stewart

    Hmmm I might want to read this!!!

  2. Mario R.

    Of course, at the time “The Lottery” was written it was pretty ground-breaking.

    Is it safe to assume you’ve already read Jackson’s other masterpiece, The Haunting of Hill House? Even if you have — for the benefit of your fans who have not, the opening paragraph:

    No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

    • Mario R.

      What I especially appreciated about We Have Always … is the way that Jackson manages to twist your way of thinking so subtly that, when everything does go to Hell on the point of a knife, it takes a while to realize you’re seeing the action through the wrong pair of eyes, so to speak.

    • I shudder to say I have not! Adding it to my list.

      • Mario R.

        Warning. Do not read at night. Same for the movie. (The 1963 version directed by Robert Wise and starring, among others, Julie Harris.) One of the few times a film actually caught the feel of the book it was based on.

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