Discovering new to you writers is a momentous occasion. Discovering they have an extensive back catalog is like Christmas morning when you were five years old. Every few months I seem to go down a rabbit hole with an author I have known and never read before, or am completely discovering for the first time. In the past few years I have done this with Penelope Fitzgerald, Madeline L’Engle, Neil Gaiman, and Elena Ferrante. Most recently, I have begun a passionate affair with the words of Shirley Jackson.
It happened in a sordid manner, worthy of a good Victorian bodice ripper. I saw the title of a new movie on Netflix: We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I didn’t even look at the picture. Didn’t let the trailer play. Which castle do they live in? Is it a real castle or metaphorical? Why is the amount of time they have lived there in question? Are they in the castle voluntarily, is this the lost tale of the incarceration of the Duchess of Sussex? Who is the titular “we”? The title so captivated my imagination, that I ran instantly to the library and took out the book. At this point I was delighted to discover a superlative orange cover from Penguin Classics, I’m a sucker for a good cover. But then to discover that Jackson has two memoirs from small town America, an incredible back catalog of short stories, and is the author of The Haunting of Hill House, which I have neither read nor seen, but at least have some little knowledge of. I could feel in my bones that this was going to be good.
Lately I seem to be stumbling upon many page turners, only to devour them within forty-eight hours of reading the first page, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle was no exception. Once our leading lady, young Merricat, has returned from the village, there was no putting the book down. Somehow I managed to miss several levels of Zelda, a rather tumultuous game of Race to the Treasure, and several hundred episodes of Dr Panda, transpiring all around me, while turning Jackson’s delicious pages.
“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.”
Merricat and Constance Blackwood, along with their aging Uncle Julius, live in a large house on a very large estate. They rarely receive visitors, and their vast land is completely closed off to the local community. Once the natural through way for the villagers to the highway, no one walks these roads anymore. Constance is a source of intrigue, fear, and often ridicule for the villagers, as years prior she was accused of fatally poisoning her entire family. The family never leaves their grounds, excepting that twice a week Merricat walks to the village to retrieve supplies. Uncle Julius works on his memoirs of the auspicious event, Constance toils in the garden, while Merricat wards off bad juju by burying artifacts around the property. Into this Gothic idyll walks cousin Charles and all kinds of trouble. Cousin Charles has an appealing countenance and charming tongue, which instantly appeals to Constance and repels Merricat. His presence in their house, and interest in the family safe, stirs things from long ago, and ensures that the Blackwood home will never be the same again.
The story is told from the perspective of Merricat Blackwood. It is her peculiar voice, and turn of phrase that keeps the story pumping. She is a peculiar character, more at home scrabbling in the dirt of the property, resting in the rough of the nest she has built for herself, than with people. She will not eat in front of people, though a facade is maintained. She has wild daydreams as she walks through the village. Her imagination is often hard to distinguish from her reality. Towards the end of the story, the environment, and Merricat’s relationship to Constance seem to take on a very Grey Gables kind of feel.
While Merricat is the voice and soul of the book, it is Constance who is the center of the narrative concerning the Blackwood family. Even with her peculiarities, Merricat comes across as the more resourceful sister. Constance has an air of Mrs Rochester about her, a lunatic in the attic, albeit a softly spoken one. The balance between the two sisters has a touch of whimsy, and a dash of absolute insanity, which I do love in a character. Constance is the focus of the gossip. Constance is the focus of the household. Constance is the focus of cousin Charles. Yet it is what lies in the shadows that most appeals in this narrative.
Even though I finished the book over a week ago, and have read several more lighthearted books since then, We Have Always Lived in the Castle still haunts me. The trailer I have now seen for the Netflix movie contains several rather alarming diversions from the book, and so I am not sure if I want to watch it after all. Though Alexandra Daddorio from Why Women Kill does make a wonderful lunatic, and it might be worth risking it just for her presence. Her eyes haunt me in the same way Merricat’s words do. Most of the time the book is better than the movie, but that doesn’t mean the movie isn’t worth watching.