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We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
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We Have Always Lived in the Castle: 03/03/21

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson is the thematic corollary to The Haunting of Hill House (1959). Here is a home torn apart and driven into ruin by generations of families refusing to let go and move on.

I originally read this novel in response to the TV adaptation of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina's use of the novel, and more broadly of Shirley Jackson's life and works, as filler for a two volume plot that was otherwise too thin to sustain multiple seasons. I also was curious to see if it, like Hill House fit into the road narrative spectrum; it does not.

At the heart of the novel is a mystery. Mary Katherine (Merricat), Constance, and their uncle are the sole survivors of a tragic poisoning. With Merricat as the unreliable narrator we're given pieces of their past to put together. By the end we'll know when it happened and how it happened. We'll also know a good deal of the troubling history of the Blackwood family and its toll on the house.

Besides Merricat's first person narration, we also have Uncle Julian's attempts to write his lengthy memoir about the family and the day of the murder. His obsession with the past serves as an example of what previous Blackwoods must have been like. The root cellar full of preserves well past their shelf date is another example. Finally there is Merricat's observation that every new Blackwood had to find a place for their things without disturbing the places of everything else. Once in, nothing leaves unless it is broken beyond repair, and sometimes not even then.

In chapter seven there's an interesting observation by Uncle Julian. It can be taken as the ranting of a dying man, but taken at face value it changes the nature of the over all novel. He says to Charles, the visiting cousin, "My niece Mary Katherine died in an orphanage, of neglect, during her sister's trial for murder." Although Charles protests that she is in the room with them, I would argue that Merricat who was obsessed with preserving the static nature of Blackwood House and removing all obstacles to that goal, could be a poltergeist.

What about the bits in town? We only have Merricat's word that she is maintaining her routine. It could also be that Constance has taken on her sister's persona for trips out of the house. Given how long it's been, would anyone recognize one for the other?

What about Charles? If he's there to take the house and the house's treasure, he would be motivated to play along. The abuse he suffers at Merricat's hand could either be through paranormal means or through Constance embodying her dead sister (see Norman Bates and Mother).

The beauty of this disturbing novel is how open ended it is. Merricat's narration spends so much time on routine, town history, geography, and family history, that the big ticket details of what's happening in the present are left wide open for interpretation.

Four stars

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