Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Dangers of Derangement

Oh, Shirley Jackson, you sure know how to creep a girl out.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is one of those books that probably is best read on a winter's night, snuggled up under a blanket with some candles burning or a fire roaring, and the wind whistling through the trees outside.  When you finish it, though, you'll probably want to be somewhere really, really well-lit, surrounded by happy, laughing, well-adjusted people.

It is Gothic literature at its very best, beginning with a general air of foreboding that looms over you and knots itself around you as the story continues, until at the end of it, you feel as stifled and horrified as Constance surely must.

The novella is narrated by Mary Katherine (Merricat), an 18-year-old girl who lives with her older sister, Constance, and her Uncle Julian in a grand home outside of town.  They live a reclusive life and don't interact much with people in town, for reasons that slowly become clear as the story goes on.  Merricat is happy with this lifestyle - she likes methods and schedules and habits, and she casts many spells and does all sorts of magic to ensure that they are kept safe.  But one day, Cousin Charles shows up at the door, and Merricat's lifestyle is threatened - he spends a lot of time with Constance and doesn't like Mary Katherine or Uncle Julian.  So Mary Katherine has to find a way to make him leave.

There's not much I can say about this book that won't spoil it for those who haven't read it, so before the break, I'll just say this is such a spectacularly written book - so atmospheric, so eerie, and almost cloying in the way it wraps its tentacles around you.  I can see why it's such a popular choice for the RIP Challenge.  The way you start the book feeling one way about characters and then the way you end it feeling a completely different way, even as you kind of know it's coming but just not the extent to which it's coming - it's all so well done.

And now for spoilers, after the break.  PLEASE BE CAREFUL.

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I think that should be enough room, right?

Ok, so here we go!

Gosh, I love unreliable narrators.  They can make books so much more awesome when they are done well.  Mary Katherine is just perfect in this role.  You start out thinking that she is this poor, awkward, lonely girl who is bullied by all these hateful people, and then you kind of start wondering if perhaps she deserves some of the dislike, and then you start disliking her, and then you get totally freaked out by her and how unbalanced she is.  That scene when she goes to the summer house and imagines everyone talking about how perfect she is?  CREEPTASTIC.

I wonder if Mary Kathrine ever felt any remorse.  I got a hint that she did when she kept saying, "I must be kinder to Uncle Julian" (even though his way of coping with the situation was to pretend that she had died, too) because it seemed kind of like the sorrowful, "Gosh, I tried and failed to kill you and now you seem like you're all right, so maybe I should atone for my sins by putting a pretty feather in your line of sight."  But she never mentioned missing anyone else, and based on her disturbing attachment to her older sister, I have a feeling she'd rather lose people to death than lose them to other people.

The scene where Constance apologizes for mentioning that it was Mary Katherine who put arsenic in everyone's food?  Ohmigosh, after that scene, I saw Constance in a totally new light - she was staying with her sister because of her feelings of overwhelming guilt, I know, but I never thought that she walked in constant fear of her own life, too - imagine having to be so careful about everything you do and say because your little sister might kill you if you do something wrong.  YIKES.

How bizarre was the end of the book, when Mary Katherine makes the house a fort so that no one can get in and or even see inside?  So it is always completely dark inside.  Enough to drive a person insane.

Oh, Constance.  My heart just went out to her.  She must have been so starved for company to have found Charles in any way endearing (unless, of course, Charles was presented to us in a misleading way by Merricat), and that scene at the end where she holds herself back from going after him (possibly because if she did, Mary Katherine would have killed them both) was just so agonizing.  Her sitting in the dark, him outside with a getaway car and everything - oh, my poor dear.

Seriously, so much going on in such a short story!  It was fantastic.  So glad I read it, so much to think about now.

22 comments:

  1. I love unreliable narrators too and this book may have the best one ever. What a creepy, fantastic book. May be time for a reread....

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    1. Yes, I think it would be even better upon a reread as you can think about how weird she is FROM THE BEGINNING.

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  2. I read this when I was young and cruel and remember finding it extremely funny. I think I had perfect faith that real people didn't act like that.

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    1. Ah, well... hopefully MOST real people don't act like that.

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  3. I'm determined to finally read this around Halloween-time, sounds perfect!

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    1. Definitely a good time of year for it!

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  4. I LOVE this book; I'm so glad you loved it too!

    SPOILER HERE

    I remember how Merricat repeats how she's not allowed in Julien's room, and how that grows over time until it's sinister. I think moment I remember most from the book is when Constance says it doesn't matter anymore, and Merricat insists. I think that's when I really realized how little power Constance had, and how complicated Merricat's madness was.

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    1. Yes, I agree! And Merricat isn't allowed to use knives, either. I wonder what would happen if she just FREAKED OUT and one day messed up Constance and then could do nothing on her own at all...

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  5. I didn't read your spoilers because this is one that I want to read very much, and I want to go in pretty blind. I have never seen a bad review of this book anywhere, which speaks volumes when you think about how long it's been out there, and how many reviews have been written. I do love gothic creepiness, and I am sure that I would love this one. I just have to get at it at the right time. Very interesting and salient points about how Jackson makes you rethink her characters. Nicely done, my friend. I sure do need to check this one out when I can!

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    1. Yes, please do - it will make you shiver deliciously :-)

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  6. This is definitely a book that leaves an impression on you. And it is one you can read again and again in my opinion.

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  7. For me..eh. But it does sound so good, you are too good :)

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  8. OH yea, it is a good one. I want to read everything Jackson has written.

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  9. Brilliantly written book. It's been a few years since I read this, and i think I should revisit next RIP season.

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  10. Yes, this is a pretty amazing book. It was my first experience with Shirley Jackson, read for one of the RIP challenges, and it was (and is) oh so good. It is the kind of book that is the poster child for the phrase "deliciously creepy" which I so often like to use in describing stories of this nature. I'm very happy that you enjoyed it, even more pleased that you were creeped out by it. :)

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  11. I cannot wait to read this one! I skipped your spoilers (thanks for keeping them so well hidden!) because I want the full effect when I dive in.

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  12. I loved Jackson's Lottery and thought that she had a great talent to let her story speak for itself. I haven't gone out and looked for her other works though. This one sounds amazing - so I'm going to pick it next!

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  13. Aaaaa I love this book so much. I finally got it for Christmas after craving it for many years but often not remembering to ask for it, and it looks so nice on my bookshelf with my other two creepy Shirley Jackson novels. Why oh why did she not write more books for me to love?

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  14. Ironically, it was reading parts of the spoiler that made me want to read this book! It sounds really interesting and twisty.

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  15. IMHO, Merricat is possibly the best unreliable narrator in fiction. Jackson is an amazing writer. I haven't loved everything I've read of hers but I always appreciate her writing in every one. This book, though, I TOTALLY loved.

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  16. I really enjoyed this! I really must reread.. I should get my own copy! I want to read more by her, but this was all my library had...

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  17. OMG Constance. I've reread this once or twice and each time it's just as creepy and just as wonderfully written. Now I want to read it again!

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