We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Shirley Jackson.

Jackson, Shirley. We Have Always Lived in the Castle. HarperPerennial Classics. 1962. F; 11/16.

Jackson was an enigmatic very talented author who not only had a dark side, but pretty much was that dark side. Her most famous story, The Lottery, describes human sacrifice in a fictional New England town. Her work has been compared to Edgar Allen Poe’s, and there’s no question that this novel is in that serious Halloweenie tradition. It may be Shirley Jackson’s greatest achievement that we are slowly won over by, or at least pulled into tolerance for, a hideous serial murderer. Setting all the creepiness aside, enabling that moral stretch is quite an aesthetic accomplishment.

The local townspeople tolerate but openly deride the Blackwood sisters, age 18 and about 30, who live with their elderly uncle just outside town in a rundown aristocratic mansion, the grounds padlocked. 18-year-old Mary Catherine (Merricat) has to go into town to shop twice a week, where she hears the children chanting rhymes about “… tea/You might poison me” and it doesn’t take us long to figure out that four of the seven members of the family were poisoned to death one night. The older sister Constance was acquitted of the murders and now never goes out.

Certain older townspeople visit the sisters, and we develop a sense of the household as similar to the one in Hitchcock’s Psycho, although Merricat’s protective magical fantasies and the relationship among the sisters and their uncle somehow draw us into an appreciation of the household’s private humane legitimacy. A cousin, Charles, arrives and peremptorily moves into the dead parents’ room, smoking his pipe and arrogating male conventional superiority while he eyes the family safe which supposedly contains a fortune. Merricat wishes him dead.

PLOT ALERT One evening she drops his pipe in a wastebasket upstairs, and the whole top half of the house burns. The volunteer fire department arrives and as night falls, with dozens of townspeople following. Initiated by the Fire Chief once the fire is controlled, they all start throwing stones at the house, vandalize the furniture and precious heirloom plates and cutlery, and wreck the interior. The uncle dies of a heart attack that night.

The two girls barricade themselves inside the ruined building, and subsist on preserved food from the basement. Eventually townspeople bring more food and leave it for them on the front porch, along with notes apologizing for their behaviour. END PLOT ALERT

Charles returns to try to get his hands on the family safe, but is rebuffed by the sisters. They carry on life in the much-diminished surviving portion of the house, reestablishing their relationship and living by the generosity of the townspeople, who while they feed them, never actually see the two girls.

Of course it’s completely weird and tragic for young women to be afflicted with agoraphobia and to be preoccupied with sympathetic magic, and a whole lot weirder and more tragic for one of them to poison most of their family. But somehow just as strange is the sentiment we carry (I did anyway) that somehow this is… not okay exactly, but defensible. The townspeople and Charles are horrible and the girls, it seemed in the emotional half of my appreciation of the story, justified in keeping to themselves. But the murder of the family?

For me Jackson is saying look, I’m writing something so good that part of you can flirt with justification of serial murder. What does that say about society, about fairness, about right and wrong, about profoundly eccentric people (especially eccentric females in the mid-20th-century) and finally about you?

There’s certainly more going on here than the kind of creepy titillation of the townspeople’s opprobrium. 8.7/9.0

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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