Wednesday, October 29, 2008

R.I.P. Challenge Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Strange characters living alone in old houses, guarding dark family secrets, are a staple of horror literature. In We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson shows us what it might be like to live with some of those creepy characters. This novel was a deliciously unsettling read, with terrors originating not from any supernatural phenomena, but from within the human heart.

Merricat Blackwood, her sister Constance and Uncle Julian live on the family estate behind locked gates. Six years before the story begins, four other Blackwoods died from eating blackberries sprinkled with arsenic-tainted sugar. Uncle Julian survived the poisoning with ruined health. Merricat had been sent to her room that evening without supper. Constance cooked the meal but never ate berries. Constance was tried for the murders but acquitted. Uncle Julian and Constance keep to the house and garden, while Merricat braves the stares and whispers of the hostile villagers twice a week to get groceries and library books.

Jackson’s words create the perfect macabre mood as she slowly reveals more about the surviving Blackwoods, their lives and the family’s past. The characters are wonderfully eccentric and totally believable. Uncle Julian constantly relives the day of the murders, pouring over old newspaper clippings and making copious notes on his own recollections. Constance cooks, gardens and cares for Uncle Julian, seemingly content. Merricat, our narrator, is 18 but behaves like a child in many ways. She buries small valuables around the property and insists on perfect adherence to order and routine, imagining she can conjure up magic to keep the three of them safe.

The reader gradually discovers Merricat is more sinister than she seems at first, and something is not quite right about the surviving family members (beyond their obvious oddities). The tense mood intensifies after Cousin Charles arrives with designs on the family fortune. Merricat resents his intrusion into her neatly ordered world and fears his suggestions that Constance leave the house and build a normal life for herself. Merricat attempts to drive Charles away, and Charles threatens her whenever Constance and Uncle Julian are out of earshot.

By the time Jackson reveals who put arsenic in the sugar bowl, the family is in crisis. The book’s ending compels readers to feel a strange sympathy for Constance and Merricat, driven even further into isolation and surviving the only way they know how.

I wanted to know more about the Blackwood family after finishing this story. Jackson dropped so many tantalizing hints about their lives before the reader meets them. I plan to obtain a nice copy of this novel for my keeper shelves, as I believe it will reward repeated readings. My grade: A.

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