Every so often I try to convince myself that reading a bunch of ebooks is the way to get through my TBR list more efficiently, so I check out a bunch from the library (free! easy! look at me getting all these books to read!) and then inevitably read one or two before I forget about it and end up with an empty loan page again.
I went through that cycle earlier this month, and while I can’t say I was any more successful than usual, I did read We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I was going to say that it’s my first Shirley Jackson, but of course like many others I read “The Lottery” in high school. I’m convinced that this is a terrible time to read “The Lottery” and while I’ll stop short of saying that people are doing it on purpose, I do think it contributed to the fact that I’m just now reading any of Jackson’s other work.
Anyway, I loved WHALITC from the very beginning, because, I mean:
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 death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.
(I too like Richard Plantagenet, but possibly for different reasons.)
Merricat’s voice is a huge strength in this one: calm and assured, deeply observant and also scattered and naive. I’m a sucker for a good narrative voice and it’s all over this one, from that opening paragraph to the end. And it works perfectly for the delicious creepiness of this story, with its silences and refusal to look full on at the truth. There’s a slipperiness of both memory and time here which relies on but is also in tension with Merricat’s confidence in her own history and reality.
One strand of this story is the eerie mirror-wrongness of the familiar and nostalgic. For instance, rather than a homey or quaint village, the one here is a locus of hatred and suspicion and eventually violence as seen through Merricat’s eyes. Though she’s certainly not a reliable narrator, I don’t think we’re meant to discount this particular aspect.
Similarly, the rituals and routines of the Blackwoods, the insistent return to the minutiae of their family history and customs, may at first call up a sense of warmth and continuity. But it becomes apparent, in the that slipperiness of memory, that the reality is darker and fiercer. We start to see the family members, both present and remembered, almost like mechanical figures going about their patterns whether they want to or not.
At the heart of the story is the bond between the two sisters, Constance and Mary Katherine. It’s Constance that Mary Katherine loves best, and it’s the threat of Constance leaving with Charles that sets into motion the final bits of the plot. But as we come to realize the truth that lies behind all the careful rituals and rules, we see that this bond becomes something both beautiful and terrible.
(I also felt the fact that a woman had written this very strongly. It’s in the details of everyday life and the careful inheritance of care for house and contents, but it’s also in the particulars of Constance and Merricat’s fear and vulnerability.)
The true trick of this one is how right it seems while reading. There’s humor, there’s a sense of embattled pride and self-reliance. There’s a sense of wonder and almost-magic that we see in Merricat’s love of her home and her land, her imagination and observation. It’s only when the story is over and the ebook returned that the wrongness of it becomes apparent. The bits that don’t add up, the bits that suddenly add up all too well, the bits that hang there waiting for a resolution. It’s one of the truly creepiest things I’ve ever read, because for so long Jackson manages to make it convincing.
So! I’m planning to read The Haunting at Hill House next and then that biography of Jackson that came out recently. But–to bring things full circle–I checked them out as ebooks and they’ve since expired.