After Frankenstein, I decided to tackle a more contemporary book on my list for the Gothic Reading Challenge, and so I chose We Have Always Lived in the Castle , by Shirley Jackson, which I finished in one night.
In his introduction to this edition, Jonathan Lethem says, “If you think you haven’t read Shirley Jackson, you probably have,” because you’ve probably read her classic short story, The Lottery. If you haven’t read The Lottery, click on that link and do it right now, and I will have done my good deed for the day–no one with any interest in reading a book blog should go one minute longer without having read The Lottery.
Now, back to Castle: when first making my list, I had to review what it means to be Gothic literature. Elements of romance, dark and atmospheric settings involving castles, ruins or tombs, aspects of fear/terror/horror, split personalities, duality, death and decay: any combination of these can classify a novel or story as Gothic, and Castle is riddled with them all. Much like Frankenstein, my first Gothic challenge novel, Castle manages to be sublimely eerie and chilling without being gruesome or bloody. The only deaths happen off-stage, and even then, the cause can be as innocent as a heart attack or subtle as arsenic sprinkled on berries.
In Castle, we also meet Merricat Blackwood, whom I can only assume is a legendary unreliable narrator, who is mostly sequestered with her sister, Constance, in their family. Joyce Carol Oates links Merricat to Holden Caulfield and Scout Finch, among others, and I would certainly concur there as well. The nasty mob of villagers we met first in “The Lottery” certainly can claim kinship with the villagers that torment the Blackwood sisters in Castle, and Merricat ventures among them only when she must, while Constance never does at all since her acquittal of murder charges six years before. As the plot unfolds, we see a deep love between the sisters threatened both internally and externally until almost everything bends and cracks under the pressure. Merricat remains haunting till the end, as does the enigmatic Constance, who makes yummy spice cookies but may have murdered the rest of their family.
As with Jackson’s other work, her language is unadorned, her pacing and timing perfection, and the tension is building with every step, so seamlessly that you are completely absorbed and at her mercy, charmed like a snake before you realize what’s happening. I especially admire how in Castle, she vividly shows just how seductive agoraphobia can be, the allure of remaining safe and orderly in a familiar nest, protected from the unknown by the people you love the most, unchallenged unless by your own design.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a chilling tale, the kind that could happen in any small town, with characters who might remind you of yourself or others you know, right up until their darker sides are thrown into the light. Jackson’s subtle talents are on full display here, and reading this novel made me determined to read all her other work, even if they keep me up at night once I’ve finished.
- The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson – book review (guardian.co.uk)
- Book Review: Shirley Jackson: Novels and Stories from The Library of America (blogcritics.org)