No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

2016/54: We Have Always Lived in the Castle -- Shirley Jackson

... all during those days when the change was coming Jonas stayed restless. From a deep sleep he would start suddenly, lifting his head as though listening, and then, on his feet and moving in one quick ripple, he ran up the stairs and across the beds and around through the doors in and out and then down the stairs and across the hall and over the chair in the dining room and around the table and through the kitchen and out into the garden where he would slow, sauntering, and then pause to lick a paw and flick an ear and take a look at the day.[loc. 679]

Mary Katherine Blackwood -- Merricat -- is eighteen. She lives with her cat Jonas and her elder sister Constance in a grand old house. All the rest of her family are dead, except for enfeebled Uncle Julian, confined to his wheelchair and obsessed with the events of the night when the rest of the family died. To Merricat falls the task of going to the village to buy food: the villagers hate her, and it's mutual. Merricat has also assumed responsibility for protecting the house: her methodology includes burying teeth and jewellery, nailing a book to a tree, establishing magic words, et cetera.

But one day her efforts fail, and Cousin Charles shows up. He has their best interests at heart, but he and Merricat take a more or less instant dislike to one another. Cousin Charles is an agent of change, and Merricat does not want anything to change: so Cousin Charles will have to go.

I have never really understood why We Have Always Lived in the Castle is described as a horror novel. There's certainly that sense of claustrophobia, of being trapped, that I associate with the genre. It is true, too, that an act of mass murder looms large in the background of the novel: but that is not the focus of the story. Nor is magic: Merricat, for all her rituals and observances, is probably not really a witch (though I could make a case for a degree of solipsism). She is not a reliable narrator, either: the slow unfolding of this novel is especially intriguing because of the things that Merricat never thinks to tell her audience.

This was a reread after many years: I was (as usual) surprised by what I remembered -- Jonas' stories, the spider in the sugar bowl, the house on the moon -- and what I'd forgotten. I think when I first read this novel, I felt as though I might have a certain amount in common with Merricat. Those familiar with the novel will be pleased to hear that I no longer feel that way.

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