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We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition) Paperback – Deckle Edge, October 31, 2006
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Visitors call seldom at Blackwood House. Taking tea at the scene of a multiple poisoning, with a suspected murderess as one's host, is a perilous business. For a start, the talk tends to turn to arsenic. "It happened in this very room, and we still have our dinner in here every night," explains Uncle Julian, continually rehearsing the details of the fatal family meal. "My sister made these this morning," says Merricat, politely proffering a plate of rum cakes, fresh from the poisoner's kitchen. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson's 1962 novel, is full of a macabre and sinister humor, and Merricat herself, its amiable narrator, is one of the great unhinged heroines of literature. "What place would be better for us than this?" she asks, of the neat, secluded realm she shares with her uncle and with her beloved older sister, Constance. "Who wants us, outside? The world is full of terrible people." Merricat has developed an idiosyncratic system of rules and protective magic, burying talismanic objects beneath the family estate, nailing them to trees, ritually revisiting them. She has made "a powerful taut web which never loosened, but held fast to guard us" against the distrust and hostility of neighboring villagers.
Or so she believes. But at last the magic fails. A stranger arrives--cousin Charles, with his eye on the Blackwood fortune. He disturbs the sisters' careful habits, installing himself at the head of the family table, unearthing Merricat's treasures, talking privately to Constance about "normal lives" and "boy friends." Unable to drive him away by either polite or occult means, Merricat adopts more desperate methods. The result is crisis and tragedy, the revelation of a terrible secret, the convergence of the villagers upon the house, and a spectacular unleashing of collective spite.
The sisters are propelled further into seclusion and solipsism, abandoning "time and the orderly pattern of our old days" in favor of an ever-narrowing circuit of ritual and shadow. They have themselves become talismans, to be alternately demonized and propitiated, darkly, with gifts. Jackson's novel emerges less as a study in eccentricity and more--like some of her other fictions--as a powerful critique of the anxious, ruthless processes involved in the maintenance of normality itself. "Poor strangers," says Merricat contentedly at last, studying trespassers from the darkness behind the barricaded Blackwood windows. "They have so much to be afraid of." --Sarah Waters --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Since the mysterious death of four family members, the superstitious Mary Katherine "Merricat" Blackwood, her ailing uncle Julian, and agoraphobic sister Constance have lived in a bizarre but contented state of isolation. But when cousin Charles arrives in search of the Blackwood fortune, a terrible family secret is revealed. Bernadette Dunne's reading is flawlessly paced and suspenseful. The voices she provides the cast of characters are spot on: precocious Merricat is haunted and increasingly desperate; Constance is doting but detached; Uncle Julian is both pleasantly dotty and utterly unnerving; and Charles is the conniving villain listeners will love to hate. A treat for fans of mystery and suspense.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
The remainder of the Blackwood family is odd, no doubt about it.
Insular, hermit-like, sisters Constance and Mary Katherine and their elderly uncle Julian have withdrawn from society, with good reason, after the shocking death by poisoning of the rest of the family six years ago. Constance was acquitted of the murder, but the townsfolk still blame her, and she no longer leaves the house except to go into her garden. Mary Catherine (or Merricat, as she's known within the family) runs the errands, reluctantly, but out of necessity and the desire to protect her sister. Whispers and stares follow Merricat when she comes into the village twice a week for necessities; children taunt her with a cruel nursery rhyme; certain bullying adults make a point of taunting her more directly. Merricat has her own way of dealing with this unpleasantness: she imagines virtually everyone she encounters as dead and takes pleasure in this internal vision of bodies strewn about the village or across her doorstep. Mary spends a lot of time alone and in her head, creating magical charms and engaging in secret rituals to protect herself and her sister from the world.
One day, despite all Mary's efforts, their cousin Charles appears at their doorstep. He is a disruption and a threat to their future peace, and Mary resolves to make him go away. Her attempts to rid them and their house of Charles' presence end in catastrophe and set the stage for the disquieting and eerie finale.
I imagines volume can be (and have been) written about this short book's themes, subtext and symbolism; Mary Catherine's and Constance's respective pathologies; and the archetypes represented by each character, major and minor. I have no intention of delving into that morass of scholarship and analysis. All I want to say is this: Shirley Jackson has never failed to astonish me with the quiet terror and creeping unease she imbues in every page, every paragraph, of everything she wrote. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is no different.
It's a great little book. I loved the message it sent. You can still be happy, even in the midst of destruction, so long as you aren't around annoying people. Also, notice how the villagers started leaving goodies for the girls only to make themselves feel better? It was a selfish way to gain control of the situation since the girls completely and utterly ignored them with every ounce of their beings. If the townsfolk really were doing something truly for the girls, they would have just left them alone like they wanted. Still wasn't really sure why Charles called them old maids. It's not like they were that old. All and all We Have Always Lived in A Castle is written in a captivating style that holds your attention. What moves the story along is this idea that every time the youngest daughter, Mary, is threatened, something bad happens, like contaminated food or a fire, and she manages to keep her existence intact. Nothing changes. No asylums to attend and she gets to keep her caregiver, too.
A castle is a safe place that protects members of the royal caste and that's pretty much what this house does for Mary or MerryKat as she is nicknamed, and Constance, her older sister. It keeps people away. So yeah, the title of the book does it justice. Its just a good, down home, anti social read in the voice and experience of someone who wants nothing at all to do with a single soul except one other person and I love it!
This story definitely has a Lizzie Borden quality to it. I was so reminded of that particular story just by the circumstances - the two women for instance, and one of them murdering their parents. So much reasonable doubt, too, so that we never know exactly who it was that murdered them. Toward the story's (non) conclusion, we are made aware it was quite possibly Merrikat who did it due to an argument her parents had, perhaps over sending her away. She is rather destructive at times. I got the feeling all she wanted was to live that existence forever, with Constance to look after her, whom she trusted. The story is told entirely from her point of view, not taking into consideration of anyone's needs but hers. I felt sad the only one she felt she could trust in life was Constance. Everyone else seemed to let her down. She does her best to turn Constance into a shell of a person, kind of lobotomizes her through circumstance or trial by fire or something. Constance ends up surviving but only if she fulfills the role of guardian and caretaker to Merrikat. She is terrorized and traumatized by putting on trial for the murder of her parents and eventually acquitted. She is too fragile to ever face the hatred and scorn of the townspeople, so she hides in the house with Merrikat, whom it seems to work out fine for. The circumstances constantly cocoon her as she manages to manipulate them without really seeming to look as if she is. Perhaps she is such a person, no one would afford her that power so it is easier for her to get away with it. She is pretty much an innocent only not exactly. She is very protective of her own way and if someone perishes in preserving it, so be it. Preservation is a theme in this tale. The family cellar is full of generations of home grown food canned over the generations which everyone is too afraid to eat. So they just sit there on the shelves for thousands and thousands of years, well, eventually.
Things took a turn for the worst when their father locked up the property, banning the locals from taking a cherished short cut to the highway. That must have been where the ill will started between the townsfolk and the family and it only gets worse from here.
I really liked the story but one thing I think would have made it more interesting, for me, personally, is if Jackson would have included Charles in the family's "last supper" and toyed with the idea of not knowing, for sure, who murdered the family - Merrikat or Charles. I like that mysterious, unknown element. Life's question marks.
I have only read Jackson's short story "The Lottery" and this book reminded me of that story. I wasn't expecting to read about shiny happy people with Jackson and the book certainly didn't disappoint in that respect. There were some very fascinating elements about the Blackwoods and the story in general but, as with the characters in The Lottery, no one was likable and no one was redeemable. I don't have an issue with unlikeable characters when there is a reason for their not being likable, but many characters here seemed cruel just for the fun of it and because of this, I felt they came off as two-dimensional. This lent itself to ending feeling contrived as well, especially with the townspeople suddenly feeling regret and trying to make up for it after they had been so cruel. I was very disappointed in the character of Charles. There was great potential to make a compelling story with Charles but the greedy relative angle was so lacking in complexity and eloquence that he was truly a cardboard character. I hate having to give a classic a less than stunning review and I did love the 1963 film The Haunting Of Hill House (and I suspect the book is much different than this story or The Lottery) and I do admire the fact that Jackson defied the happy suburban housewife image of her time to write disturbing fiction. But this was just a little too disturbing for me.