We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Always late to jump on the bandwagon, this one has been reviewed a lot in the blogosphere…
During the past month or so, I kept seeing these great Penguin covers on blogs across the Interwebs. I believe Penguin (in the UK at least) is using this general design for a range of modern editions, but the ones I kept seeing were for Shirley Jackson titles. Unfortunately, the copy of We Have Always Lived in the Castle that I stumbled across at a charity shop was an ugly American edition (as opposed to an ugly-American edition). For some reason Penguin thinks that we Americans can’t handle good graphic design. (Of course they may be right, but that is the subject of another post.) Despite its lame cover art (see below), I bought the book anyway. I figured I needed to discover myself what all the Shirley Jackson hubbub was about.
The only thing I knew about this book before I read it, was that it was a bit macabre, something good for Halloween. So I picked it up this weekend to see if I would get scared. At a slim 214 pages, WHALITC does manage to build quite a bit of suspense. I am glad I didn’t read the plot teaser on the back of the book. It wouldn’t have spoiled the book by any means, but not knowing the premise made the narrative all the more suspenseful in the opening chapters. The book opens with Mary Katherine (aka Merricat) Blackwood running errands in the small village near her family’s estate. But it is soon clear that, for Merricat, running errands is more like running a gauntlet. She goes about her business rather skittishly, hoping no one will notice her, plotting her route to have as little contact as possible with the townsfolk. Frankly, it reminded me a bit of when I was in junior high and would plan my day, in and out of school, so as not to come within shouting distance of anyone just waiting to call me a fag. And like my junior high days, Merricat is only partially successful in avoiding the teasing and vituperations cast her direction.
As the story unfolds we learn that Merricat lives an isolated life with her sister Constance and their invalid Uncle Julian. We also learn that Merricat is highly superstitious, burying objects all over their property and silently incanting “magic” words in the hopes of keeping them all safe. It isn’t long before we find out why the Blackwood’s are so isolated from society. Even though the back of the book would tell you, I am not going to. You will have to read it. Even once their secret is out to the reader there is much that is mysterious and just plain weird. The climax is brought about by the appearance of a long lost cousin whose presence threatens to upset the order of things for Merricat and presumably the others. Some things aren’t as they seem, but you wouldn’t be alone if you guessed ahead of time what secret still remained hidden.
At its essence WHALITC is a family drama with quirky characters, lots of dark secrets and denial, and an angry mob thrown in for good measure.