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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Be afraid, be very afraid

Shirley Jackson - We Have Always Lived in the Castle (published 1962)
I tried to get my book club to consider reading this but the cover design of the Penguin Classic edition put people off. The black and white line drawings have a silly, cartoonish look, and the slimness of the volume, only 146 pages, makes it seem like a children's book. But it is definitely not.
This book is both a whodunit and a masterful depiction of mental illness, conveyed with such economy of language and such a subtle tone, that I was floored. Jackson is another mid-century writer who has undeservedly dropped out of sight. When the New Yorker magazine published her short story, “The Lottery”, in 1948, it generated an unprecedented amount of hate mail, so you know she had her finger on the dark pulse of something. Aside from “The Lottery”, I had never read anything of hers previously, although I had heard about her funny housewife tales, so I thought she was an early version of Erma Bombeck, writing about fallen cakes and muddy paw prints on the linoleum. I quickly discovered what I had been missing.  
Castle starts out like a child's Halloween story...there is a creepy mansion on the hill whose inhabitants are never seen, except for Mary Katherine (Merricat), the 18 year old narrator. Merricat, herself a bit unhinged, trots into town every week to stock up on groceries and to demonstrate, through her presence, that the Blackwoods are still there. She has to put on a brave face as she encounters the unaccountably hostile attitude of the villagers, who torment her with nasty rhymes and cross to the other side of the street when they see her.  Merricat is a dreamer who defends herself with elaborate fantasies; she pictures the villagers with "their rotting hearts coveting our heaps of golden coins" and compares them to taloned birds of prey, "striking, gashing with razor claws". The Blackwoods have always been set apart from the villagers as a consequence of wealth and breeding, but that is not the only reason for this antipathy. Something happened at the mansion years ago-- an accidental death by poisoning, followed by a murder trial—that’s referred to obliquely, almost in passing. But this event has forever changed the way the Blackwoods are regarded by their neighbors. Shunned, they retreat into splendid isolation and utter reliance upon each other.
The members of the Blackwood family—virginal, motherly Constance; fragile Uncle Julian; and dear, strange Merricat--are highly sympathetic characters, and we feel for them. Their attitude of wounded dignity and downtrodden pride makes perfect sense given the harsh treatment doled out by the community. But over the course of the book, the reader is made increasingly uncomfortable as we become more aware of just how damaged and off base our unreliable narrator is.  Jonathan Letham in his introduction to the Penguin edition says Jackson is "perpetually underrated and persistently mischaracterized as a writer of upscale horror", when rather than say, the paranormal of a Stephen King, her great subject was the "wickedness in normality"-- the way that everyday evil manifests itself in our very hearts. Jackson is a brilliant writer; she lets things develop at a leisurely pace, never says too much when less will do, and she made me care so deeply about the Blackwoods that I never stopped reading, with my heart in my mouth, until at last I knew what would become of them.  
BTW, read the introduction after you finish the book, not before, if you don’t want to have the ending spoiled.     
I'm in the middle of reading Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House"; it'll be interesting to compare the two when I'm finished.

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