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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.
"We Have Always Lived In The Castle" is likely her best novel, having nothing at all to do with being her last novel. Not a single word is wasted and Jackson uses her readers' intelligence and imagination to further her cause, usually with surprise but never the surprise one expects.
Mary Katherine Blackwood, an 18 year old girl, tells this story in first person and Jackson's skill is most apparent in that she earns the love and support of the reader despite how very clear "Merricat's" mental illness. She lives, with her sister Constance (ten years her senior), her invalid Uncle Julian and her cat Jonas, in the family mansion on the outskirts of a village where her sister Constance is the town pariah after having been acquitted of the mass murder of her entire family. A cousin, Charles, comes to visit and to encourage Constance to come out of hiding and "rejoin the world." Not only is Charles duplicitous but his actions cause the village to revert to a barbaric savagery not seen in Jackson's work at this scale since "The Lottery." (1948)
There are so many layered, brilliant elements to this small book (her shortest) that most of it is lost to the reader on the first read. "Castle" requires a half dozen readings and each one drops our jaw further still, unearthing more miracles, more horror, more brilliance and more important elements we failed to catch previously. Because there is not one wasted or careless word, revelations are more and more captivating. This is a book you will want to share but you won't want to part with your own copy.
It will take you four readings to realize that though Mary Katherine is constantly expressing a desire to be good and kind to Uncle Julian, the two of them have not exchanged a single word throughout the novel. Mary Katherine strictly follows every rule that she must follow and is the one who must face the hatred of the villagers on her twice weekly trips to buy groceries and get library books. This is far more important than we know, as the first chapter brilliantly takes us to the village with her.
Not only is the human remarkably vulnerable to being hurt but is remarkably capable of the most horrific crimes against humanity. Because this is first person, these two factors are casual, almost as if they weren't the very point of this masterpiece. As Stephen King said in his dedication for "Firestarter": "In memory of Shirley Jackson, who never needed to raise her voice."
Jackson's legacy will long outlive King's.
It is very likely that "We Have Always Lived In The Castle" is one of the finest novels ever written.