So I kind of cheated this week.
There was a release of a new printing of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle with an Edward Gorey-esque cover that was irresistible. So I forsook The Ginger Man briefly and read that instead. Ooops.
Most people are familiar with Shirley Jackson by either her short story “The Lottery,” in which a seemingly modern village holds an annual lottery to choose who will be sacrificed and stoned to death by the townspeople, or her novel turned Owen Wilson/Catherine Zeta-Jones/Liam Neeson movie The Haunting of Hill House. And if you are familiar with those works, you know that the Shirley Jackson oeuvre can be downright creepy.
Such is the case with We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which opens with the narrator, Mary Katherine “Merricat” Blackwood, stating that the villagers have always hated them (them being Merricat, her sister Constance, and their Uncle Julian Blackwood). Indeed, the first chapter goes on to describe Merricat making her weekly errand run in the village and being harrassed by children and adults alike, the children who taunt her with a playground rhyme:
Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!
The rhymes origin is from an event at the Blackwood house that occurred six years earlier — one night at dinner, the girls’ parents, their younger brother, and Uncle Julian’s wife were all murdered by arsenic that had been mixed into the sugar bowl and used by the family to sprinkle sugar over their dessert of blackberries. The only ones to survive were Merricat, who had been sent to bed without supper, Uncle Julian, who didn’t use a lot of sugar but has been ill from aftereffects of the poison since then, and Constance, who never took sugar on her berries. Because Constance fixed the dinner and had washed the sugar bowl, she was the main suspect, even going through a murder trial until she was acquitted of the charge. However, the people of the village still believe that Constance was the murderer and have since ostracized the family, turning Constance into an agoraphobe; she hasn’t left the confines of the house and the yard in six years.
And so they have lived in their somewhat peaceful existence. Merricat is a bit of a feral child, or at least a whimsical one — she makes little protection spells by nailing her father’s old things to a tree or burying things, like a box of silver dollars, and she runs around the land around the house with her cat, Jonas. Constance seems to spend her day cooking, taking care of Uncle Julian, and shaking her head and saying, “Silly Merricat.”
But of course, there is a change in the air. The change in question is the sudden arrival of their cousin Charles, who claims to be their father’s brother’s son. He tells them that his father would never allow him to contact them while he was alive, but now that his father is dead, he has come to do his family duty by showing up at the their house, moving himself into their father’s old room, appraising all of their things, and making thinly veiled threats to Merricat, who is instantly suspicious of him:
“Cousin Charles?” I said, and he turned to look at me. I thought of seeing him dead. “Cousin Charles?”
“I have decided to ask you to please go away.”
“All right,” he said. “You asked me.”
“Please will you go away?”
“No,” he said…”As a matter of fact,” he said, “come about a month from now, I wonder who will be here? You,” he said, “or me?”
Okay, maybe not so thinly veiled. But Merricat retaliates by listing all of the poisonous mushrooms in their yard, so that shuts him up for a while.
Charles argues with Uncle Julian, who is constantly confused between what is and what isn’t reality (at one point, he says that “my niece Mary Katherine died in the orphanage of neglect” when she’s standing in the room with him, which makes you wonder for a split second if you’re having a “The Sixth Sense” moment), and Merricat runs off to their old family shed and talks with her dead family members, who all fawn over her in a way that is super super creepy. She returns to the house for dinner, and when Constance sends her upstairs to wash her hands for dinner, she notices Charles has left a lit pipe in his room. She pushes it into the wastebasket that is filled with newspapers and innocently reports to the table for dinner.
Of course, a fire breaks out and Charles freaks out and runs to the village to get help, as if the fire burns down the home, then where would he get any more money? The villagers come to help, but they are overcome by the mob mentality and their hatred and fear of the Blackwoods, and they begin destroying the downstairs rooms, breaking and smashing things, all the while chanting the playground rhyme. Constance and Merricat hide in the woods, where they can watch and listen to the mob from a safe distance. Charles attempts to steal the family safe and it’s reported that Uncle Julian has died, presumably of a heart attack. While they’re watching the chaos, Merricat lays a bomb:
…and I said aloud to Constance, “I am going to put death in all their food and watch them die.”
Constance stirred, and the leaves rustled. “The way you did before?” she asked.
It had never been spoken of between us, not once in six years.
“Yes,” I said after a minute, “the way I did before.”
Yes. It turns out that Merricat was the one who poisoned and killed her family. But that’s really all that the book gives you. There’s no explanation, no reasoning behind it. Just an admission that’s almost an aside. All she says is that she put it in the sugar because she knew that Constance never took sugar. I don’t even know.
After the villagers leave, Constance and Merricat go back to the house and salvage what is left. Only the rooms in the top floor of the house burned, so they make do with the bottom floor and whatever material goods they have that the villagers didn’t destroy. Speaking of the villagers, they appear to be contrite about how they’ve treated the girls and begin to leave offerings of food and casseroles on their front porch. Constance waits until the cover of darkness to retrieve them, to make sure they’re really gone and no one can see them. The sisters live in the house on their own, and the final lines of the novel are:
“Poor strangers,” I said. “They have so much to be afraid of.”
“Well,” Constance said, “I am afraid of spiders.”
“Jonas and I will see to it that no spider ever comes near you. Oh, Constance,” I said, “we are so happy.”
Um, yeah. Okay.
To me, the most frustrating thing was the lack of explanation of the family’s murders. Merricat is a textbook example of an unreliable narrator. She’s eighteen years old, but has definite childlike qualities, such as her “protection spells” and the way she plays in the yard and in some ways the way she talks to Constance. But does that have something to do with the reason behind her poisoning the sugar? There was obviously some sort of intent behind it, as she tells Constance that she purposefully chose the sugar because she knew that Constance wouldn’t eat it. And, hi, why is Constance not freaked out about her little sister being a killer? The language is very straight forward, which also adds to the appearance of Merricat being an innocent child. Until she starts listing off how many ways she can poison you.