Shirley Jackson, “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” (1962) – They’re creepy and they’re kooky/they’re altogether (something?)/nuh-na-na-na-na-na-nah/The Blackwood family!
Listen: a goth, I am not. In fact, I used to be pretty anti-goth before I learned to just let people enjoy things without my interference (to be fair, I was outnumbered by goths and pro-goths who hadn’t gotten that memo yet, either). To a certain extent, it’s the narcissism of small differences, different shades of interest in the tragic- my emphasis on conflict and the agon, theirs on the outcome, the beauty of the dead and damaged… or in less exalted terms, I like wars and they like murders… or that all could be bullshit. Either way, like I said in my Mishima review last time, I’m altogether not much of an aesthete, so the goth (or punk, or really most subcultures) way wasn’t for me.
So what do I get out of gothic literature? And does Shirley Jackson’s oeuvre really count? I think the answers to those questions are “not as much as other people” and “yeah, basically, at least this book does.” In “We Have Always Lived in the Castle,” we are taken into the mind of Mary Katherine Blackwood, from a family of creepy murdered people the only survivors of which are her cohabitants sister Constance and uncle Julian. They live in a creepy old house in creepy old small town Vermont. Mary, or Merricat as she is known, lives her life according to the sort of rules and rituals made up by someone who stopped growing up at around twelve, or around the time most of her family was poisoned to death by… somebody. She buries things in the yard and nails other things to trees for their magical, protective properties. She’s into mushrooms, especially deadly ones, and her cat Jonah. Her sister consumes herself with cooking and other domestic tasks, and Uncle Julian obsessively documents the day in which his family was poisoned and he himself rendered invalid. It’s a gothic scene, I think we can all admit.
Her post-murders applecart is upset by the intrusion of her materialistic cousin Charles. Charles wants the family money, and is quite willing to turn Constance against Merricat to get it. He’s no match for her, though, and her means of removing him leads to what was for me the most interesting part of the book, a conflagration at their house followed up by a mob attack on the family- the Blackwoods had become fell legend for the small-minded Yankees they lived amongst and the fire became a bacchanalia for their greed and violence. Between the villagers and cousin Charles, you can’t help preferring the Blackwoods for who they are, creepy and potentially murderous though they are. Presumably, this was the effect towards which Jackson aimed.
All told, I could get why this is such a well-loved novel by so many people I know. It was definitely meticulously put together, and I’m interested in having more looks at Shirley Jackson’s work, especially her short fiction. That said, it’s not especially calculated to grab me. The stakes — the maintenance of Merricat’s way of life and the mystery of who murdered her family — didn’t interest me that much, for reasons not really the author’s fault. I wouldn’t say I related to Charlie or the villagers as opposed to the Blackwoods. Maybe I most related to Uncle Julian, who wanted to be fed, watered, and left alone to his historical researches… or maybe I just relate to the world outside the suffocations of the gothic, even if I can appreciate the intricacy and skill of its structures. ***