by Shirley Jackson
We Have Always Lived in the Castle is fairly tasty, more or less satisfying aesthethically and yet still puzzlingly popular fare--the reading equivalent of being promised an old school hearty meal along the lines of a juicy steak and a Caesar salad and then having to settle for a high end chicken pot pie "with an incredibly flaky crust" and no salad whatsoever. Whatever, why I'm not bummed that I read the book: 1) Mary Katherine "Merricat" Blackwood, the 18-year old narrator who spends much of her time fantasizing about taking her loved ones on a ride to the moon, is an undeniably fascinating creation: at once adorable--you may even want to protect her--a bit of a kook, and a sick puppy. For example, a revenge-minded line like "I wished they were all dead and I was walking on their bodies" (429) might seem like typical teenage sass when taken out of context except that Merricat has already confided that "I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead" (421) and "I always thought about rot when I came toward the row of stores; I thought about burning black painful rot that ate away from inside, hurting dreadfully. I wished it on the village" (426). Get the picture? 2) For a dark fable that can be read as a somewhat cynical anti-bullying but pro-poisoning attack on our notions about the nuclear family, conformity, and the idea of small town community, the loving relationships between Merricat, her older sister Constance, their sickly Uncle Julian, and even Merricat's pet cat Jonas are warmly and not at all cynically observed. Humorously, too: crazy old Uncle Julian's loaded remark to Constance--"You have been a good niece to me, although there are grounds for supposing you an undutiful daughter" (465)--is exactly the sort of thing I would have wanted to hear from the eccentric uncle who survived the arsenic poisoning that killed off most of the rest of his family and for which his niece was accused but acquitted of committing. Why the book isn't anywhere near as big a deal as its legions of admirers maintain: 1) Cousin Charles Blackwood, the money-hungry (and would-be romantic) threat to the Blackwood sisters' family dynamics, and almost all of the town villagers are mostly caricaturish types as villains. 2) In a novel in which the narrator's fairy tale-like interior life requires more than the usual amount of suspension of disbelief from the reader but offers such extravagant joys in return, how disappointingly ironic that the act of "realistic" violence that turns the Blackwood home into a castle in ruins near the end of the novel is so totally unconvincing and lacking and pedestrian from a storytelling standpoint. It completely breaks the narrative spell. Why so many bloggers are willing to bestow their highest Zagat ratings on books that have little more than an incredibly flaky crust to offer: you tell me, comfort food readers! Chicken pot pie for the soul? Yes, that must certainly be the answer to the We Have Always Lived in the Castle popularity question for, as one emo Amazon reviewer has so earnestly put it, "Anyone who reads this novel and is not deeply affected emotionally is simply not human."
Shirley Jackson (1916-1965)
The edition of We Have Always Lived in the Castle referred to here appears on pp. 419-559 of the LOA Shirley Jackson anthology, Novels and Stories (New York: The Library of America, 2010).