Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Signal Watch Reads: We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Shirley Jackson, 1962 - audiobook)

After reading The Haunting of Hill House, one or two of you (I know Max was one) suggested I check out more of Shirley Jackson's work.  We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962) was the lead recommendation, and as I'd really liked the other novel, when October rolled in, I selected it as my Halloween read.

That may or may not have been the best selection specifically for Halloween as it's not necessarily the stuff of the monsters and pumpkins and ghosts I usually associate with the holiday, but everyone does it differently.  Rather, the closest comparison I could draw would be along the lines of Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte or Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?.   But even those are a far cry from this book.

Still, depending on how one were to read it - this book is horror.  Not the creeping uncanny spirits of a ghost tale, or even the realization that the normal is face-to-face with the supernatural.  It's the reader wrestling with an untrustworthy narrator and a creeping descent into something not necessarily sinister but tragic and mad.

Merricat Blackwood lives in a large, near-empty house on the edge of a village in decay, a relic of some prior era of prosperity in decades gone by.  She's eighteen, does not care for the people of the village, and is deeply rooted to a routine she performs as regular as clockwork.  She lives alongside her sister, Constance, who will not venture to the village herself, instead hidden away within the rooms of the family manor with her sickly old uncle, Julian.

The three are all that remain of a once well-to-do family line that never cared much if the people of the town didn't like them.  At some point, six years in the past, tragedy befell the family in a poisoning incident, and only Merricat, Constance and Julian survived.  Now, the three huddle in their home, accepting only one or two visitors but otherwise shunning the world, their property behind a fence and locked gate, buried within trees and protected by Merricat's totems.

Merricat, our narrator, flits through the day on the power of magic, practicing small bits of witchcraft to keep the world at bay, while Constance tends to the house, her garden and the invalid, mentally-slipping Uncle Julian, all with tireless patience.

I went into the book knowing nothing but the title and the name of the author, and I hesitate to say much more, because the uncovering and discovery of character and events is all part of what Jackson means to guide you through.  What happened?  How has that impacted past and present?   And, all with a tremendous ability to reveal bits just in time or just as needed, never giving a full picture, but always hinting around the edges.

What Jackson captures in both this book and The Haunting of Hill House are the anxieties and paranoias of the chronic introvert and agoraphobe.  Its my understanding that Jackson suffered from some of these tendencies herself, something she treated with a 1950's regimen of amphetamines and downers, which eventually led to her death.

It's unusual for a book to look upon these anxieties with this degree of insight - it is a person's mental state, and that is not something you just change.  But both novels also acknowledge the toxicity of living entirely within your own head, certain they're all looking at you, certain they're out to hurt you.  And we've all known someone like that.  For god's sake, I work in a library.  While those people are in the minority in my workplace by far, I so take care to assess each new person I work with to be certain I make no sudden movement that will send my colleagues running for the hills.  And it's all too often I can see it in their eyes:  Go away.  It doesn't matter if you're here to resolve the very issue I am having.  Please go away.

The flipside is, of course, the characters in the novel also demonstrate the passive-aggressive defenses that pervade interaction as an intrusion into one's perceived turf.  It's a sort of low-level aggression that hides in emails and anonymous complaint boxes, riddled with perceived slights and furious reaction to change and poor reaction to change.  We Have Always Lived in the Castle is the realization of that mindset expanded to delusion/ fantasy, and, curiously, part of the strength is keeping the readers at bay, keeping them at an arm's length, even as Merricat narrates what's occurring, it's from a perspective of paranoia, taking for granted the perceived cruelties and the escalation of what it means for the sisters when the routines and spells fail.

It's curious to read a book with a protagonist with whom this reader couldn't quite sympathize even if I could understand the character intellectually.  Whether Jackson intended for a reader to empathize with Merricat (I think not) or her sister Constance (a bit more likely), it's difficult to tell.  But it's a fascinating read and wholly unexpected as far as how most of these sorts of things work.

The voice acting is by Bernadette Dunne, and it's absolutely pitch perfect, modulating for multiple characters, and giving just the right tenor to Merricat's manic view of the world.

No comments: