Last year I read an article in SciFiNow magazine (issue 85) about Shirley Jackson that piqued my interest both in her and her stories, and I scribbled down the following quote in my notebook:
“I tell myself stories all day long. I have managed to weave a fairy tale of infinite complexity around the inanimate objects in my house, so much so that no one in my family is surprised to find me putting the waffle iron away on a different shelf because in my story it had quarrelled with the toaster.”
We Have Always Lived in the Castle’s narrator Merricat has a similar relationship with the world around her to that described by Jackson and this, for me, is the most appealing thing about this spooky little book. It’s something I can identify with (having certain obsessive compulsive rituals of my own and a deep and abiding belief in the secret life of my things – the toys are definitely up to something when I’m not around), and it’s something that gives her ‘magic’ a solidity and familiarity that brings it into the everyday world. There’s no esoteric learning or preparation behind Merricat’s spell-casting, only a private logic and a deadly intention.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle is not a story about magic. It is the story of three damaged people, Julian, Constance and Mary Katherine Blackwood, the only survivors of the deliberate poisoning of their family, unable to move beyond this defining event even after six years. Uncle Julian, sick and invalided ever since, relives the trauma over and again trying to solve the puzzle of it; Constance gives herself up completely to the care and feeding of the other two in guilt-ridden self-sacrifice; and Merricat creates a series of routines and rules of ever-increasing complexity to dictate her day-to-day life. All three have rejected the world beyond their house and garden and resist any change, Merricat most strongly of all. It could be read as a mystery – who poisoned the Blackwood family? – but you’d have to be pretty dense not to know the answer to that question by the end of chapter two at the very latest. It’s better read for the sheer, near-unbearable, claustrophobic tension that builds and boils over in just 146 pages (with never a ghost or machete-wielding maniac to be seen).
Despite their resistance to it, change comes for them anyway, in the shape of a cousin, Charles. It’s perhaps the greatest show of Jackson’s skill that Charles is more sinister and upsetting than Merricat with her dark imaginings and desire to see all the villagers dead. His insidious move into the house, into father’s chair and room, and into Constance’s regard (but never her affections, I don’t think), threatens to tip the little family’s perfectly ordered life into chaos and his obvious greed disgusts both Merricat and the reader. That he looks like father too, however, doesn’t bode well for him and when he taunts Merricat, you perhaps feel a little thrill of fear not for just her, but also for him, that he doesn’t realise quite what he’s getting himself into and that he, and we, have no idea where it will all end.
So, yeah, it’s not a book about magic. Nonetheless, Merricat’s witchcraft permeates the story. With an oddly childish logic she protects the Blackwood estate with buried totems and tree-hung talismans, she divines powerful words to ward off threats, and imagines her trips into the village as a giant board game where she must move in particular ways to avert disaster. She sees omens and signs. She talks to her cat Jonas, and listens to his stories which, she tells us, all begin in the same charming way: “My mother, who was the first cat, told me this”. She hears her dead family members in the night. When she is contemplating how to best get rid of Charles she thinks carefully about which ‘device’ to use, listing all the empowered objects in the house and weighing up their potential effectiveness for the task. Charles becomes a demon and a ghost in her mind and her logic when working her magic in his room is sublime as she removes anything he might find familiar so that “Charles would be lost, shut off from what he recognised, and would have to concede that this was not the house he had come to visit and so would go away”. The domestic world from Merricat’s point of view is full of meaning, portent and fetishization (not a word? it is now), and because she’s telling the story maybe the reader doesn’t ever fully appreciate that she is as mad as a bag of spanners.
I’m pretty sure Constance and Uncle Julian are mad too, of course. Six years alone together in a big old house having virtually no contact with the outside world isn’t conducive to mental health with or without the deaths of a large portion of your family to contend with. What’s interesting is that there are so few clues as to what’s going on in the minds of Uncle Julian and, more particularly, Constance. Merricat reports their words, but she spends almost no time at all noting their manner, mood, tone, or facial expression. We know that Uncle Julian is obsessed with the murders and spends his days chewing over every little detail of the fateful day. Constance, on the other hand, is an enigma. Does she resent having to look after her invalid Uncle? Does she chafe under his fretful watchfulness and Merricat’s strange devotion? Does she ever get angry, frustrated, sad? How does she feel about having been charged with the murders of her mother, father, brother, aunt, and then acquitted? Her days seem to be a never-ending cycle of work – caring, cooking, gardening, cleaning – without complaint, but with a definite weight of guilt. A number of times while reading We Have Always Lived in the Castle I imagined how much different Constance’s version of this story would be … perhaps it’s too sad to contemplate.
For such a short book We Have Always Lived in the Castle leaves an incredible impression. It’s a book I was both relieved and disappointed to finish – relieved to be able to breathe again, but disappointed that I could no longer see the world through Merricat’s eyes. Despite her dark and twisted imaginings she’s definitely a magnetic character, and her internal world has an attractive underlying sense with its unbreakable rules and secret meanings. Or maybe that’s Shirley Jackson’s magic at work.
PS – It’s been a long while since I read Iain Banks’ Wasp Factory, but I was reminded strongly of Frank from that book while reading about Merricat in this one.
PPS – The Penguin Modern Classics copy I borrowed had a very dull cover and while normally the picture I put with my post matches the cover of the copy I’ve read, I just couldn’t do that this time round. Thomas Ott’s 2006 cover for Penguin is the cover. It’s untouchable. No one should bother trying to repackage this book ever again. Ott nailed it.
“What would be better for us than this? Who wants us outside? The world is full of terrible people.”