Sunday, June 19, 2011

A CHILLING SUMMER READ: "We Have Always Lived in the Castle"

Rediscovering an American master, through her darkly compelling take on small town life

"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 deathcup mushroom.  Everyone else in my family is dead."
So begins Shirley Jackson's chilly masterpiece about the small-minded circumstances and devastating consequences of bullying in a small town, We Have Always Lived in the Castle.  
Mary Katherine, Constance, and Uncle Julian Blackwood -- suffering from dementia and possibly heart failure -- live together in that icon of the dark imagination, a forbidding old house on the edge of wherever.  But Jackson adds an important twist:  The house is made spooky not by supernatural entities, but by the demons of the human mind and heart.   
I rarely write about books I've read, but my daughter sought out a gripping read for a West Jr. High video book report this year.  She's at that age where frightful tales are all the rage, so I recommended Carson McCullers' excellent "The Ballad of the Sad Cafe."  She and her friends re-enacted scenes from the novella and posted them on YouTube for the class project.  Next year, I'll introduce her to the wonderful Shirley Jackson. 
America boasts a rich pantheon of powerful women writers who tackle subjects head-on their male counterparts broach obliquely at best.  From the angst of an alienated heart in the works of Jackson, McCullers and Sylvia Plath, to the bitter divide of racial injustice or the quiet repose of the retrospective soul in the stories of Eudora Welty's "A Curtain of Green," or Flannery O'Connor's "Everything that Rises Must Converge," female writers have a unique take on the American experience that I hope my daughter -- and son -- can learn from and explore. 
"The Lottery"
If you haven't heard of Jackson, it's no surprise.  The author Jonathan Lethem, in his introduction to the novel's latest edition, writes of a "minor parlor trick" he used to play.  "When asked my favorite writer, I'd say 'Shirley Jackson, counting on most questioners to say they'd never heard of her.  At that I'd reply, with as much smugness as I could muster: 'You've read her.'" 
Lethem was referring to Jackson's short story "The Lottery" -- the most-anthologized short fiction in American history and The New Yorker's most controversial piece ever, based on the voluminous public outcry that followed its 1948 publication.  Jackson's ghost story, The Haunting of Hill House, is also widely considered best of genre in the 20th century, and became a movie not once, but twice

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, however, established Jackson as a master.  She creates compelling empathy for a family of outcasts and the mentally-disturbed woman-child who decides to do something about their plight.  Ironically nicknamed "Merricat," Mary Katherine, the story's narrator, fills the tale with magical thinking, describing the many odd, fascinating, and disturbing ways she copes with loneliness, grief, and coming of age in a province of petty grievances. 
That Mary Katherine is a bright young woman is evidenced in that first passage, after you look up "Richard Plantagenet."  That she will relate to teen facings the dilemmas of socialization is obvious after the first chapter, but with one critical caveat:  Merricat Blackwood is probably, hopefully unlike any teen you or yours will ever meet. 
Unwelcome visitor
Jackson's tight, clean prose -- she could give Hemingway a run for his money -- beats with a dark heart of declarative sentences that wrap the novel in a lean 146 pages.  "I am chilled," Merricat declares, whenever contemplating a distasteful notion, like the thought of sister Constance venturing into the unwelcoming village.  Merricat's creepy encounters with her long-lost cousin Charles -- an uncouth, unwelcome invader by any other name, come to claim his share of the family fortune -- left me chilled, with Jackson hitting every child's emotional buttons, like the way Charles talks around Merricat. 
Like the way he ignores her, even to her face.  Like the way he talks to her beloved black cat Jonas, and the dread-inspiring thoughts he leaves in his wake.  "I wonder if Merricat knows what I do to people who don't like me," Charles asks Jonas, in front of Merricat, of course.
The fate life -- and Merricat -- ultimately visit on the family comes as both inevitable and surprising.  The town's response is tragic but typical, the devastation final, and the two young women strangely and peacefully resigned.   If anything, We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a prosaic ode to the inescapability of our personal choices. 
We have always lived in castles of our own making, and we always will.   


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