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16th October
2009
written by Steph
We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Ooooh... spooky!

After finishing Jane Eyre, I found my appetite whet for more gothic novels.  I’ve also been in the mood to read more female authors lately, as I realized that I have had a slight bias towards male authors this year.  I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I sometimes feel like female authors will write a gentler or more soothing novel, perhaps more emotional focusing on the inner life.  A broad brush for both sexes, I realize, but one of the reasons I picked up Jane Eyre is because I was feeling testosterone overload in my reading.  The issues in the books I was reading weren’t specifically male or anything like that, there was just something about the style and the slant that was mentally wearing me down.  I am probably not expressing this experience very eloquently or coherently, and I fully admit that I am perhaps more sensitive in my reading whims than others so I may be the only one who feels this way and picks up on the subtle nuances between male and female writers, but I guess all of this is to say that Dracula was out when it came to picking a spooky book!  But the immortal prince’s loss was Shirley Jackson’s gain, as this finally gave me the push I needed to pick up We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I realize this book has pretty much exploded around the book blogging stratosphere of late, especially with the R.I.P challenge in progress, so at this point I suspect there are few if any of you who are not at least aware of its existence.  I can’t say much about the plot of the book since this is one of those books where it’s best to go in knowing as little as possible, as Jackson slowly reveals information to you at just the right pace.  But the basic idea is that the Blackwood family has always been social outcasts amongst the small village in which they live, but this has only increased since the majority of them were mysteriously poisoned with arsenic one night, leaving behind young Mary Katherine (Merricat), her sister Constance (who was charged and acquitted for the murder of her family), and their ailing Uncle Julian.  Through Merricat’s eyes, we learn of how the two Blackwood sisters live an extremely isolated life, cut off from almost everyone except out of necessity.  Then one day, their cousin Charles shows up quite unexpectedly, and for one of the sisters, quite undesirably, and all of a sudden, the fraying threads that have been keeping their life in tact begin to break apart and everything begins to crumble… I think that if you haven’t read this book and intend to, it would be best for you to stop reading here, as I think I will likely wind up discussing more specific elements of the book that may detract from a first-time reading experience.  I will say that if you are looking for a creepy, atmospheric book then this is a great choice.  While reading, I was at different times reminded of other books like I Capture the Castle (if that book were spooky rather than charming), The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime (let’s just say that Merricat is an interesting narrator…), and Henry James’s wonderful Victorian ghost story, The Turn of the Screw (the book feels disturbing and complex in a very similar way).   For being a fairly chilling book, I would say that We Have Always Lived in the Castle was a fairly brisk read – one you could easily read in a few hours.  The prose is not overly complicated and the plot, while initially quite confusing, is quite engaging and likely to hold your attention and potentially even steal your breath away too!  OK, so now you should stop reading my thoughts if you intend to experience the book firsthand. One thing I really liked about the book was how effectively Jackson built up the atmosphere in her novel, really layering on different dimensions to the story and her characters.  In that respect, I thought this was a fitting follow-up to Jane Eyre as as one of the things that I most enjoyed about that novel was how well Charlotte Bronte transported me to her chilly, mournful Yorkshire moors.  I think Jackson is equally skilled at conveying a subtle sense of unease, implanting in her readers’ minds the notion that something is Not Quite Right, before gradually amping up the creepiness and sinister tone of the novel.  In the first chapter, I found myself thinking Merricat was a bit of an oddball but was generally swayed by her depiction of the town and felt angry along with her against the other villagers.  But soon into the second chapter, I began to feel that maybe Merricat was more than just a little odd, and began to really feel a sense of threat pervade the story.  I think the first 3 chapters or so are quite confusing, as the story jumps back and forth in time, and the interjections from Uncle Julian only add to this disorientation since he himself is not entirely in the here and now. I think this was an effective tack for Jackson to take as the bewilderment she evokes in her readers probably enhances our general sense of unease as we struggle to get our bearings and figure out who we can trust and who we cannot. I felt the story was masterfully told, there are some interesting questions to ask about narrator reliability and the like, but for me this novel wasn’t a homerun.  In part, I found myself really annoyed by Merricat.  It was pretty obvious to me fairly quickly that there was something extremely wrong with her, something on the order of mental illness.  I have read other reviews where people have waxed about how awesome Merricat is, or how charming, but I did not like her at all.  She gave me the creeps and I found her vicious  and petulant.  So much had led me to believe that cousin Charles would be the awful, sinister character, but I think much of the threat involving him was merely perceived on Merricat’s part.  I suppose she didn’t like the fact that he symbolized change and instability to her well-known routines, and certainly he was avaricious, but compared to what Merricat has perpetrated in the past, I think these are perhaps lesser sins.  So, I didn’t love Merricat, and while loving the main character of a novel is not critical to my enjoyment of it, it still bothered me here. Also, I figured out the “twist” for myself pretty early on as well, and that also disappointed me.  Tony says that I am crazy, but I really am not the kind of reader who is generally very good at spotting oncoming twists, and so when I do, I wind up feeling like the twist wasn’t really very clever, because if I could see it then it must have been fairly obvious.  I felt like for all her construction and layering, Jackson telegraphs fairly early on what her twist is (and perhaps even what the novel’s climax might be).  I guess I was expecting my socks to be knocked off, and they instead stayed securely on. I do think Jackson does a great job of painting her story on a canvas with varying shades of gray – it is difficult to say at any point who is right, who is wrong, who is good, who is bad.  I think she shows we all have the capacity to make mistakes, to behave badly.  But I still had unanswered questions, such as why Merricat poisoned her family in the first place (for attention?) and why she spared Constance.  Why did they return to their family estate after the tragedy, even though they were already disliked beforehand? Why didn’t Constance try to get Merricat help?  Why did she instead seem to enable Merricat’s behavior? Wasn’t Merricat’s odd behavior noticed at the orphanage (I could see how she might conceal it on her brief visits to town, but over a prolonged stay amongst strangers, that seems less likely)?  The fact that some of these questions niggled at me and were never resolved (we find out who the murder was, but not why… sheer insanity just doesn’t seem very fulfilling to me) really mitigated my overall enjoyment.  Also, after the hefty and rich read that Jane Eyre proved to be, I felt We Have Always Lived in the Castle to be somewhat insubstantial.  Some books you read in a single day because you can’t bear to put them down and you burn through the pages… and other books you finish swiftly simply because they are short and the writing isn’t really very challenging so you can read it fairly quickly.  And I felt this book was more an example of the latter than it was the former.  Top marks for being creepy, but I have read other books this year that were also thrilling and atmospheric but that also really absorbed and ensnared me. Will I read more Jackson in the future?  Sure, I don’t see why I wouldn’t.  But this book didn’t shoot to the top of my favorites pile, nor do I feel that I need to go out and place everything she’s written on the top of my TBR pile.  This was a diverting read – great for any of you who are planning on doing the 24-hour read-a-thon – but I don’t think this will be one I keep with me for future re-readings.  For my money, I still prefer The Turn of the Screw to this. Rating: 3.5 out of 5

18 Comments

  1. 10/16/2009

    I stopped reading at the moment you suggested I should, as I do plan to read this (don’t I don’t know when…the TBR mountain is definitely not under control). I see, though, that it only got 3.5 stars from you, so I wonder now what didn’t work. I’ll have to come back after I read the book.

    I did read The Haunting of Hill House about a decade ago, far before I had any real experience in reading. I didn’t become a reader until 2 years later. I didn’t enjoy the book, but I also didn’t realize it was as old as it was, and was judging by modern standards (and I was really biased against modern books). So I want to reread it with a fresh perspective and see if it works better for me.

  2. I also stopped read when you suggested I should!

    I have a copy waiting to be read – hopefully at some point in the next few weeks. I’m sad to see that you didn’t love it – I look forward to reading it and comparing notes soon.

  3. I would discuss points that you’ve raised, Steph, but I am concerned that people may read the comments even when they haven’t read past where you told them to!

    I would say that everything that Merricat and Constance did was for one another; from the opening pages, you can tell that as sisters they are exceptionally close and Merricat says that she always wanted her for herself (hope that was vague enough not to spoil but also clear enough for you to understand!)

    I also guessed the twist but I think the unreliability of the narrator was so well evoked that it was hard not to.

  4. 10/16/2009

    @ Amanda: Perhaps I put my “stop reading now” warning a tad early, as the rest of that paragraph is safe to read for those who haven’t read it. Once you’ve read the novel, I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts! I didn’t feel the story was outdated personally, but having just come from reading Jane Eyre, I might have been more in the mood for a more old-fashioned yarn!
     
    @ Jackie: I am one of the few who it seems did NOT love this one, and I think it just has to do with personal preference and also with what I’d recently been reading! I think a lot of things are well done in the book, it just didn’t capture me and completely thrill me, which is why I couldn’t give it a better rating. That said, it was a quick read and I certainly don’t regret reading it! I look forward to sharing less general thoughts with you once you’ve read it!
     
    @ Claire: I’ll send you an email so we can chat more in-depth about certain ideas, because you’re right that we shouldn’t litter the comments with “spoilers”.

    Generally speaking, I think I would have preferred more background into the Blackwoods so that we could have gotten more perspective into why the poisoning was done and why – did something trigger the behavior or was it just an unreasonable obsession that led to it?

    In the end, it’s not the end of the world that I guessed the twist, I think I was just a little disappointed that there hadn’t been a bit more subtlety leading up to the reveal!

  5. Rob
    10/17/2009

    This was a blast from my past; high school English, 1972. I remember the mood and atmosphere of the book. Maybe I’ll take another look with my “50-ish” eyes and see what I think of the writing now. Good review.

  6. 10/17/2009

    I don’t stop reading when spoiler warnings are raised….I don’t think this is one I’ll ever read, I think I’ll stick with the classics. I’m also not ever looking for a “creepy, atmospheric book” so I’ll just stick with the real gothic literature!

  7. 10/17/2009

    Hi Steph, this one is already on my TBR shelf. I read it in high school and look forward to seeing what I think of it now many, many years later. There is a short story by Jackson (I think it is called The Lottery) that you might enjoy if you want to try some of her short stories.

  8. I definitely enjoyed this one more than you, Steph, and I think maybe that’s because I didn’t really worry about all the unanswered questions – I just let the plot go where it wanted to go and enjoyed the ride. I do get what you mean about not liking Merricat as a narrator, but for me the fun was in having this weird, unreliable narrator, and trying to figure out what was real and what was not.

  9. I stopped reading at the note too 🙂 This book has looked interesting every time I see a review of it. I’m not sure why I don’t have it yet though — Gothic is a fun genre to read.

  10. 10/18/2009

    Like Claire, I don’t want to include spoilers in the comments, but it seems that her thoughts are close to my own. I think that the reasons for the crime, as well as for seeing Charles as such a threat, were a desire of complete control, almost ownership. And that’s one of the things that I found the most disturbing about this story! Also, I found Merricat interesting, but definitely not charming!

  11. 10/19/2009

    @ Rob: In a way, I think this would be a great book to read in a highschool English class – there is certainly a lot to discuss, the writing is accessible, and the story is likely sufficiently interesting and creepy to hold most teens’ attention. To some extent, I think I would have liked this book a lot more if I had read it 10 years ago!
     
    @ Rebecca: But isn’t gothic literature filled with “creepy, atmospheric” books? I actually thought Jane Eyre fit this bill to some extent! That said, I’m not sure this book would really be to your tastes, so I think you’re safe in skipping it! Perhaps you could try The Turn of the Screw by James instead?
     
    @ Kathleen: I saw a collection of Jackson’s short stories on my last trip to the library and I might very well try them! I’ve only heard great things about The Lottery, so I think I should give it a try (And I think it’s actually available online somewhere, which is even better! 😉 ).
     
    @ Heather: I think the notion of an unreliable narrator is often really interesting and can be a wonderful dimension to a novel, but for whatever reason I just could not connect to or grasp Merricat. Perhaps my brain was in overdrive after reading Jane Eyre, and this might be a fluffier book than I was expecting and so I overthought it…
     
    @ Kim: It’s a quick read, so while I didn’t fall madly in love with the book, it was a diverting weekend afternoon read. Also, I am the anomaly in terms of my response – most people who read this one really do seem to love it!
     
    @ Nymeth: I think your interpretation re: control is probably very apt – I just wanted more backstory! We never really get any perspective on what the Blackwoods were like before the murders, and for me, I think I needed that insight. I suppose I still just keep wondering why Constance and why not someone else in the family?

  12. 10/19/2009

    I can’t believe I’ve never read this author; this too will change. Loved your review Steph

  13. 10/20/2009

    Steph, I stopped reading the post where you told me to stop. I just got a copy yesterday and is planning to read it next weekend, during Halloween. The cover does look spooky!

  14. 10/20/2009

    @ Diane: I hope you enjoy the book! Jackson writes a nicely tangled yarn that is great for an afternoon of solid reading, so I think you’ll probably like this a good deal.
     
    @ Matt: I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on this one. It’s definitely a great choice for Halloween!

  15. 10/21/2009

    I stopped reading where you indicated because I really, really want to read the book. I don’t yet have a copy, but I am going to try to grab one soon. I think it will make a great Halloween read, and when I am done I will come back and read the rest of your post.

  16. 10/21/2009

    @ zibilee: It will definitely make a great Halloween read – I kind of feel like this is the only time of year one could read this book!

  17. 11/01/2009

    I was terrified of Merricat. The bit about kicking the dying neighbor and burying her cousin’s head in a hole were pretty scary.

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