Monday, January 28, 2019

Sounds: "We Have Always Lived in the Castle" by Shirley Jackson

Sounds: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, 1962, downloaded from Wisconsin Digital Library.

Lizzie Borden meets Grey Gardens.

My only previous experience with Jackson's work is a school reading of The Lottery. After a few recent online praises of Jackson's work over the years I figured to give this a try. My verdict: Meh. The story never really revved up for me. There was just a narration by the mentally ill narrator, Merricat. Spoilers await.

The story is Southern Gothic with a big, remote, and neglected house populated by a family of weirdos.  18-year-old Merricat, her older sister Constance, and elderly and disabled Uncle Julian live in the house. Everyone else in the family - both parents, a brother, and Julian's wife - died in a mass dinner  poisoning eight years ago.

Constance went on trial for the family's murder-by-arsenic and was acquitted. But, we all know Merricat did the deed before Jackson reveals the fact to us. Merricat is the only one to leave the house and she does so about once a week to venture into town for food and other supplies. Constance is agoraphobic and has not left the house or garden in years. Uncle Julian ate a non-fatal dose of the dinner arsenic and is now confined to a wheelchair and has dementia.

A cousin shows up one day, moves into the house, charms Constance, angers Merricat, and starts asking about the safe full of cash the family lives off of. Not much happens. The girls still have a few people from town who visit them. Merricate schemes to frighten away Cousin with magic words and rituals. Uncle Julian loves to talk about his dead brother, his dead wife, and the night of the deaths.

There is little action until the house partially burns down from a lit candle and a mob from town shows up with the fire department. The house still remains standing but Uncle Julian dies, Cousin leaves, and some neighbors start leaving food for the women. The women never leave the house again.

I suppose with psychological suspense you don't have to have much action. With Jackson still having a strong following 50 years after she died I figured to check with an expert and searched Crider's blog for his thoughts. Crider linked to a paperback collector who lists Merricat as "a practicing witch" and Uncle Julian as "deranged." Well...

First let's look at Merricat. Merricat tried to murder her family when she was 10-years-old. Motive is never discussed and I was left thinking she is murderously insane. Constance may have been intentionally spared - Constance skipped dinner after a row and was in her room that evening - but I'm not certain. Constance still acts like a ten-year-old. Her behavior of repeating certain words as a charm or laying out belongings in Cousin's room to ward him away are more the work of a superstitious child than a witch. She is overly attached to her older sister and hides out in forts along the river and the woods.

Secondly, Uncle Julian is losing his mind. That ongoing loss seems to be both dementia and PTSD. To me the word "deranged" makes him sound like a mad scientist.

I suppose there are plenty of PhD theses about Jackson and/or this novel. Go read those for deeper insights because I don't much care.

Leftover Comments:
1. Oh, hey, dig it. There is a 2018 film version. Crispin Glover is in the cast. How incredibly fitting.
2. Is there a straight line from Southern Gothic to B-movie horror flicks with a similar set-up? Or is it just Gothic to Southern Gothic to Hammer Films?

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