October 31, 2007

Shirley Jackson: We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Posted in Jackson Shirley at 1:41 pm by John Self

This is one of those books which was under the ‘personal recommendations’ sign at my local bookstore.  The cover and title were so interesting I couldn’t resist picking it up, and then the blurb was so teasing (no synopsis or reviews, just a couple of extracts) that I couldn’t quite put it down.  It’s a Penguin Deluxe Classics Edition – a bit misleading, as there isn’t as far as I’m aware a non-deluxe edition – published in the USA, but easily available etc etc.

I had never heard of Shirley Jackson, but Jonathan Lethem in his introduction assures us that we will have read several of her stories, including her most famous, “The Lottery”.  Well, I hadn’t; but I have now read “The Lottery” and thought it pretty silly and predictable.  Fortunately the same cannot be said for We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), which was Jackson’s last published novel before her death in 1965.

The cover gives a pretty good impression of the book.  Two sisters, Mary Catherine (known as Merricat) and Constance Blackwood, live in a tired old house with their cat and their Uncle Julian.  “Everyone else in my family is dead,” Merricat tells us. And “Everyone in the village has always hated us.”  The connection between these two facts leads us through the tangled story at the heart of the book.

In some ways the Blackwood sisters are normal, or at least part of a tradition:

There were jars of jam made by great-grandmothers, with labels in thin pale writing, almost unreadable by now, and pickles made by great-aunts and vegetables put up by our grandmother, and even our mother had left behind her six jars of apple jelly.  …  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.

In other ways they reveal unusual traits: “I can’t help it when people are frightened,” says Merricat.  “I always want to frighten them more.”

It is impossible not to feel sympathy for them when Merricat braves the village to buy provisions or makes a token attempt to mix by having a coffee in Stella’s cafe (“If anyone else came in and sat down at the counter I would leave my coffee without seeming hurried, and leave”).  When she does withstand the company of her neighbours, the atmosphere thickens:

“They tell me,” he said, swinging to sit sideways on his stool and look at me directly, “they tell me you’re moving away.”

“No,” I said, because he was waiting.

“Funny,” he said, looking from me to Stella and then back.  “I could have sworn someone told me you’d be going soon.”

Jackson brings out slowly a Magnus Mills-ish sense of being an outsider (perhaps inspired by her crippling agoraphobia, which left her housebound for the last years of her life), and we empathise with the Blackwood girls even when Merricat is losing patience with a visiting cousin (“I was thinking of Charles.  I could turn him into a fly and drop him into a spider’s web and watch him tangled and helpless and struggling, shut into the body of a dying buzzing fly … I could fasten him to a tree and keep him there until he grew into the trunk and bark grew over his mouth”).  And the questions – why do the villagers hate them, why is everyone else in the family dead – are answered, though the answers are not always surprising and one putative revelation is visible a mile off.

More than that, when we do discover what has happened, we are not offered any explanation or reasoning, and there is not quite enough built in to make it satisfying anyway.  However the ending is almost swooningly elegiac, which makes up for a lot.  The Blackwood sisters too – obsessive and fearful, persecuted and dangerous, apparently sexually frozen – are characters one could spend a lot of time on, if not with.

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30 Comments »

  1. susan said,

    I read this many years ago and still remember liking it. However, I liked “The Lottery” too, although I read it a long time ago too.

  2. I read Shirley Jackson in high school but I recently reread both The Lottery and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. When I read The Thirteenth Tale it reminded me vaguely of Jackson’s book and I had to reread. It is not nearly as haunting to me at 55 as it was when I was sixteen but worth a second visit. Personally if I was the older sister I would never have sacrificed myself for the crazy one but that’s just me.

  3. John Self said,

    I think she must be generally much better known in the US than in the UK. Both the editions of her books in the bookstore I was in (Castle and The Haunting of Hill House) were imported US editions; I don’t think she’s even in print in the UK at all.

  4. Daniel Lopes said,

    hey, John. great blog! i’m brazilian, came here through Google Blog Search. i was looking for some text on Coetzee, a writer that a love, and here in your blog i found not only comments about him but also about Philip Roth. i’ll be here more times.

    if you can read the portuguese, please take a look on my blog, where you can comment in english.

  5. John Self said,

    Thanks Daniel, glad you’ve enjoyed it here so far. I’m afraid I don’t speak a word of Portuguese though! I wonder if those Google translate links really work…?

  6. Daniel Lopes said,

    no, no John. forget about it, the Google translations are… well, forget it. by this time, i will simply suggest to you and your readers the reading of two Brazilian contemporary authors – Rubem Fonseca and Milton Hatoum. i bet you’ll love. from the first, take a look on the great “Vast emotions and imperfect thoughts”. from Hatoum, try “The brothers”. both are at sale on Amazon.

    i’ll be back here soon.

  7. jem said,

    I’ve got ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ on a to read list.

    I’m not sure whether I fancy this one you’ve reviewed or no. I think the cover is mostly putting me off. There is something that reminds me of a comedy horror spoof computer game about it.

  8. John Self said,

    Thanks Daniel. Funny you should mention Milton Hatoum: I’ve been looking at Tales of a Certain Orient in my local bookshop and thinking of getting it. I will definitely investigate further.

    Jem, I really like the cover but I know what you mean! Jackson is interesting certainly, and if you get to The Haunting of Hill House, I’d love to know what you make of it.

  9. The cover on this one is, in my opinion, terrible and off putting. It does nothing to suggest the crazy eeriness of the story. I can still see the cover I had in hight school and it was the best by far.

    • Gina said,

      I agree about the cover. I almost didn’t buy it for that reason. It looks like a bad B movie or a high school art project.

  10. nico said,

    John, thanks so much for your wonderful and inspiring blog. I came across it looking for Nicola Barker’s info. You have an immense archive. I ordered now the Shirley Jackson book. Thanks again!

  11. nico said,

    Oh!, forgot to tell you that i’m chilean, so more exoticism in your page!

  12. John Self said,

    Thank you nico! I should have a world map on my blog so I can stick virtual pins in it and keep track of where my visitors are from!

  13. meghandahn said,

    Shirley Jackson is one of those writers – like Edna O’Brien and Nadine Gordimer – whose work never ceases to grab me (almost as if by hooks to eye sockets). I don’t put books of hers down; I read them straight through without exception. Something about the way she writes brings me back to my teenaged days. I thought for a time that it was her proclivity for the gothic, but then I changed my mind. I think it has more to do with her particular ability to write through characters that exist slightly askew from normative society. And what’s more teenaged than that?

    Really interesting blog – glad I stumbled upon it!

  14. John Self said,

    Thanks for visiting, meghan, and hope to see you here again soon. As I mentioned above, Jackson isn’t even in print in the UK, but I think I will have to pick up an import edition of The Haunting of Hill House based on your and Candy’s recommendations for her stuff.

    Then again, I haven’t read any Edna O’Brien either and here (in Northern Ireland) she’s not only in print but quite prominently available, so what’s my excuse this time?

    By the way I see from your blog you’re currently reading Ondaatje’s Divisadero - please feel free to add your thoughts to my post on the book.

  15. John Self said,

    Good news for British Jackson fans: Penguin UK will be issuing this book, along with The Haunting of Hill House and The Lottery and other stories in their Modern Classics line in October 2009.

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  17. Murdo said,

    You found “The Lottery” predictable? Really?

  18. John Self said,

    Murdo: alas yes, I did. However I may have been a little harsh in my assessment, as I’ve since read the entire volume of The Lottery and other stories and I found many of them very good indeed (and most of them I liked better than ‘The Lottery’ itself).

  19. Alice May said,

    Hi, everyone (from Manchester, England). I think what’s easy to forget is when The Lottery was written. To our contemporary minds it’ s a fairly predictable formula, but no-one was publishing anything like it at the time. Given a realistic village setting (like I say, of its time), the ending would have appeared unexpected, shocking and somehow scandalous. The US has always had a strong streak of moral conservatism running through it, and back then it was much more rigid. If it had been written as an overt fable in a mythical land, it would have felt uncomfortable but more acceptable. As it was, people were horrified to have a mirror held up to them reflecting the extremes of behaviour that convention, conscience et al tends to keep suppressed within us.

    • kyle said,

      “The US has always had a strong streak of moral conservatism running through it”

      Unlike England, of course.

  20. Baruch said,

    Jackson, who later killed herself, wrote one of the funniest books I have ever read called “Life Among the Savages” about her family. Contrasted with her other more macabre writing, it’s amazing that the same person wrote them and one can understand perhaps why she killed herself, with such polarity in her psyche.

    • Heather said,

      Shirley Jackson did NOT kill herself. She died of a heart attack. Yes, she was young when it happened, and yes, it was no doubt brought on by her own behavior (drinking, smoking, overeating, addiction to prescription meds, etc.), but it was NOT suicide.

  21. kyle said,

    ” I have now read “The Lottery” and thought it pretty silly and predictable. ”

    Well, aren’t you something!

  22. Richard said,

    Hi John – I just finished reading this novel this morning, did a google search, and should’ve known I’d end up here! Anyway, I really enjoyed the novel. A nice sense of creepiness permeates it, and I liked Merricat’s narrating voice.

    I’ve been reading in Jackson’s recently published Library of American edition, which includes The Lottery and The Haunting of Hill House, as well as this one and several other stories.

    Re: “The Lottery”, I’m glad you read the whole collection. It’s a story that has been much-anthologized in the States (I think I have two collections that include it), and is pretty famous, though I hadn’t read the story before I read the whole thing just two weeks ago. I think it works better as the final story in the collection. It didn’t strike me as predictable, and I wonder if that’s because the rest of the collection doesn’t work the same way. Also, it seems to in some ways comment on the other stories (though I realize that in reality it was published on its own in The New Yorker, to much controversy, earlier than the other stories, it still seems to function better in relation to them).

  23. John Self said,

    Yes, Richard, I was a little unfair on ‘The Lottery’ first time round, and I enjoyed many of the stories in the collection as a whole (not that I can remember which ones by now). But you have reminded me that I also have The Haunting of Hill House to get around to.

  24. Diana said,

    I just finished listening to ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’ twice! Why twice? Because I thought that maybe I’d somehow missed a couple of chapters. I felt this story had great potential but much was left un-answered. Why was Merricat sent to her room that night? What did Charles’ family have to say about Constance and Merricat? Did they suspect it was Merricat all along? I guess what I’m saying here is that John Self’s description of this book is right on. I wish the author spent a bit more time with character development of this family.

    This will not stop me from reading/listening to another of Ms. Jackson’s stories. Perhaps ‘Life Among Savages’

  25. john h said,

    Heather is right. Shirley Jackson did not kill herself.

    I went through a phase where I read everything of hers. What she excels at is creating atmosphere. I agree with the comment that “The Lottery” is best appreciated given the context out of which it arose.

    A book of hers which nobody has mentioned is “Hangsaman”. Perhaps it hasn’t been published in the UK. It’s about a girl who’s been molested. Pretty powerful stuff.

    John H

  26. Jenny said,

    I read this book several years ago, but when you refer to the reveal that we can see coming a mile off, do you mean the reveal of who killed the family? I pretty much knew the answer from the beginning, but I got the impression that you were supposed to know long before the actual reveal.

  27. Cale said,

    Jackson makes it pretty clear early on that Merricat is a total wacko. She’s about 98% feral, she’s always casting her spells, and wishing pretty much everybody but Constance and Uncle Julian dead all through the book. So yeah, the suspense wasn’t a matter of whodunit but rather the question of what’s going to happen to the women at the end. Which also you could kind of see coming like a slow train wreck.
    If you have read much of Jackson’s work at all you know that her protagonists typically come to a bad end.

    Jackson’s power lies in her uncanny understanding of latent human fears (as Lovecraft puts it) and her extraordinary skill as a writer which she uses to exploit those fears as no other writer I know save perhaps Robert Aikman.

    Someone above mentioned her ability to create atmosphere and I couldn’t agree more.

    I think We Have Always Lived In The Castle stands up quite tall in comparison with Turn of the Screw as a masterfully executed, multi-layered work of strange fiction.

    Absolutely one of the best.


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