We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson
Viking Press, 1963
Please stand so that we may begin. A long drawn out silence ensues before a voice appears from parts unknown.
“Bow all your heads to our adored Mary Katherine.”
All heads shall bow in kind, with the obvious exception of those recently severed (an unfortunate blow from an axe, guillotine, or the like). This is where someone might choose to mutter, “I don’t get the joke,” in advance of a reply offered feebly but succinctly, “Gothic lit.”
Hush up now. Do as instructed. Bow your heads in the distinguished presence of one of literature’s epic antiheroes: an oddly sympathetic if not beloved psychopath, a teenager afflicted with a touch of the old soul. The incomparable, the unforgettable, Mary ... Katherine ... Blackwood! Applause. Applause. A chant rings out: Merr-i-cat! Merr-i-cat!
My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the deathcup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.
Anyone with even a mild case of agoraphobia would do well in choosing to stay inside while curling up with Shirley Jackson’s final novel. One’s reading space should be sacred after all—as sacred as, say, Merricat’s special place, the summer home whose inhabitants eerily cross the boundaries of death and imagination alike.
I disliked sitting on the stone floor but there was no other place; once, I recalled, there had been chairs here and perhaps even a low table but these were gone now, carried off or rotted away. I sat on the floor and placed all of them correctly in my mind, in the circle around the dining-room table. Our father sat at the head. Our mother sat at the foot. Uncle Julian sat on one hand of our mother, and our brother Thomas on the other; beside my father sat our Aunt Dorothy and Constance. I sat between Constance and Uncle Julian, in my rightful, my own and proper, place at the table. Slowly I began to listen to them talking.
Happy Birthday to Me. An image from the 1981 slasher flick comes to mind with dead bodies positioned neatly around a table in preparation for an unlikely birthday celebration. This is where someone might choose to mutter, “I don’t get the joke,” in advance of a reply offered feebly but succinctly, “Melissa Sue Anderson.”
Really, it is no wonder Merricat seeks refuge in the fortress of her imagination because it is here where she is the object of universal and undying adoration.
“Mary Katherine should have anything she wants, my dear. Our most loved daughter must have anything she likes.”
Conversely, in the land of the living, it is not as if she and Constance are similarly adored.
The people of the village have always hated us.
Of course it must be said that the one person who has has no shortage of empathy for the novel’s odd subjects just so happens to be the person who matters most: Jackson herself. As a result, We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a deliciously disturbing study that skews moral boundaries enough to leave readers prone to aligning their sympathies with a young murderess and her sister while simultaneously feeling little else but contempt for the lynch mob villagers who condemn the horrific act.
Nevertheless, questions over allegiances forged must be routinely revisited. The hostility of the townsfolk toward the Blackwood sisters isn’t exactly unwarranted. It is not altogether difficult to understand why sinister views of the seemingly sadistic sisters have been adopted. There is that tiny thing about the arsenic poisoning. Like shackled ghosts that can never be released from their untimely ends, the deceased remain entombed in the memories of the villagers and within the confines of the now infamous home where they gasped their final breaths.
Seeing things through Merricat’s admittedly jaded, witchy-woman eyes, you wonder if only the outside world was perhaps less venomous, less judgmental, less deadly, less anything, then maybe just maybe things would have turned out differently. Except that a psychopath is still a psychopath. As it is, Merricat is left to protect herself and her sister, practicing her own brand of witchcraft to secure the boundaries between her idyllic existence and the scorn that exists beyond its thorny edges.
We are left with a shattering image of live entombment that resonates after the final page has turned: the Blackwood sisters buried deeply within a dilapidated sanctuary seeped in fantasy, tragedy, and not a little sadness.
We learned, from listening, that all the strangers could see from outside, when they looked at all, was a great ruined structure overgrown with vines, barely recognizable as a house. It was the point halfway between the village and the highway, the middle spot on the path, and no one ever saw our eyes looking out through the vines.
The Hills Have Eyes. Sorry. Wes Craven’s 1977 (or 2006 remake) envelope-pushing horror film pops in my head. This is where someone might choose to mutter … ah, never mind.