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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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“A marvelous elucidation of life…a story full of craft and full of mystery” —The New York Times Book Review
“A witch’s brew of eerie power and startling novelty” —The New York Times
“I was thrilled by the genuine but meaningful strangeness of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle.” —George Saunders
About the Author
Shirley Jackson (1919–1965), a celebrated writer of horror, wrote many stories as well as six novels and two works of nonfiction.
Jonathan Lethem is the author of numerous acclaimed novels, including Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude.
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The basis for this novel is a family, the Blackwoods, whose remaining family members have been ostracized by a small community. We learn why: a terrible tragedy years before—poisoning, it seems—took the lives of everyone of the Blackwood clan excerpt three, Uncle Julian, Constance, and the narrator, Mary Katherine(aka “Merricat”). Constance was suspected, but ultimately acquitted of the poisoning. Living a life mainly of alienation away from the whispers of this town, the Blackwoods are able to manage. Merricat believes in such things as omens, and is vastly different compared to her sister, Constance. Uncle Julian is an invalid because he did have a bit of the poison that claimed the other Blackwoods’ lives, but not enough to kill him. This is a book that is difficult to reveal too much about plot without spoiling, but, when a certain cousin Charles suddenly arrives to the Blackwood home, the plot thickens.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle is very reminiscent of Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” in its themes of mob mentality. As the remaining family members by to go about their lives, they are often the subject of subtle and not so subtle taunts and threats.
There is a brilliantly atmospheric vibe to this novel. My feeling is that Shirley Jackson is incredibly underrated as an author, not being given quite the accolades she deserves. This book is one such example of her genius, an expertly crafted eerie tale with brilliant prose. It is a perfect book for a Halloween night.
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.