PICK YOUR POISON: Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle

“Merricat,” said Constance, “would you like a cup of tea?”

“Oh, no,” said Merricat, “you’ll poison me.”
“Merricat,” said Constance, “would you like to go to sleep?”
“Down in the boneyard, ten feet deep.”

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July is the month that the Tuesday Night Bloggers have decided to focus on great books that center around poison. Here it is, only the second week, and I’m already breaking one of the rules by not focusing on a Golden Age mystery, or even on a traditional whodunit in the Golden Age tradition. Instead, I thought I would share one of my favorite novels of all time. Yes, there are murders and other kinds of violence. There are greedy relatives and twists and turns throughout. But Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962) is so much more than that. It is, simply put, one of the scariest and most beautiful novels I have ever read, and if you don’t believe me, I challenge you to go right out and read it! Go ahead, don’t believe me! Please don’t believe me . . . just read it!

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I feel like the best way for you to enjoy this novel is to tell you as little about it as possible. So let me start by saying a little bit about the author. If you are not familiar with Shirley Jackson, I’m a little bit surprised at you! Jackson is most famous for a short story that has been taught to schoolchildren for well over sixty years called “The Lottery.” This is another story that you really should go into not knowing anything about it. Let’s just say that it reflects Jackson’s fears of a post-war world mired in Communist witch hunts, anti-intellectualism, and prejudice against “the other,” all themes that recur through all of Jackson’s work. Jackson and her husband, noted literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, lived in North Bennington, Vermont, a small village that resembles the settings of both “The Lottery” and Castle. The small-minded prejudices of the villagers contributed to the psychosomatic illnesses that plagued Jackson throughout her life, including agoraphobia, which made it difficult for her to leave her home. The main characters of Jackson’s stories tend to be isolated, either by circumstance or choice, from the rest of society.

For the Blackwood family of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, circumstance has led to their isolation in a large house on large grounds outside their small New England village. Seven years before the novel starts, six members of the family sat down to dinner. (Only 11-year-old Mary Katherine was absent, sent to bed without her supper for misbehaving.) Five of the six members were poisoned by arsenic in the sugar. Four of them died. Constance, Mary Katherine’s older sister, did not put sugar on her berries, and for that she was tried for murder and acquitted. Now, the two sisters live with their half-senile Uncle Julian in the crumbling old house, and at the start of the novel they are quite happy in their familial solitude.

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The book is narrated by Mary Katherine, now eighteen and called Merricat. Her introduction reveals the deceptively simple yet lyrical style of Jackson’s writing:

“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 my family is dead.”

Her character reminds me of a slightly older Scout Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird with its combination of wild bravery and precocious imagination. Scout narrates her story too, but from the perspective of an older woman looking back, while Merricat is every inch a teenager. She is also definitely an odder girl than Scout, fierce and wild, and she has set herself up as the protector of the sister she adores. Every week, Merricat goes to the village to pick up groceries, and while many of the adults are civil with her, it is abundantly clear that the villagers despise the Blackwoods. The children follow her and tease her with the rhyme quoted above, and the combination of that verse, the New England setting, and the character of the Blackwood girls can’t help but call to mind another New England case, that of Lizzie Borden, who was also acquitted of the murder of her parents.

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Shirley Jackson wrote one of the most atmospheric ghost stories of all time, The Haunting of Hill House. This time, her novel is slightly more grounded in reality. The only whiff of the supernatural comes in the form of the sympathetic magic Merricat practices to shield her family from the outside world. When one of her talismans goes awry, Merricat fears that evil is about to be unleashed on her existence. She is absolutely correct.

I’ll keep it short and sweet because I don’t want to give any more away. Jackson bemoaned the grubby evil in the hearts of common men, and nobody could write a more gripping description of a group of such people as she could. You can see how well the author handles crowd scenes in “The Lottery.” At first, this seems like it will be a much more intimate novel about the Blackwoods. Yet there is a scene toward the climax of such power, as it pulls the lid off on the sort of wickedness the people of the 1950’s had to deal with and the evil that mobs can get up to. There are worse sorts of poison than arsenic: ignorance, petty fear and prejudice come to mind. It occurs to me that it would be most timely to have everyone today read books like We Have Always Lived in the Castle since the worst of human nature seems to be rearing its ugly head again and spreading like a virus.

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Just a little note to those of you who have been so kind as to follow my blog: I’m leaving for a ten-day theatre jaunt to New York City today!! And while I plan on doing a little nosing around for some GAD books, I will be on Broadway every night watching shows . . . sheer Heaven! I plan to blog about each show I see, including the daring new production of The Crucible, (which shares the same tone as We Have Always Lived in the Castle), the Tony-winning best play and musical – The Humans and HamiltonThe Color Purple and Waitress, and I hope those of you who are interested will stick around for the ride. I may not have much time to blog about books, but I’m taking my laptop and my iPad, so you never know!

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9 thoughts on “PICK YOUR POISON: Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle

  1. Brad…I hate to have to tell you this…but I have read it. And it’s the only thing by Jackson that I’ve ever not liked. Not even a little bit. I didn’t feel the power of the narrative here that I did in “The Lottery,” other short stories, and The Haunting of Hill House.

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