Wednesday, September 14, 2011

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Last night the library book group discussed Shirley Jackson's psychological thriller We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Almost everyone liked the book and a lively discussion ensued. You can click on the link to the New York Review of Books review above (the highlighted book title)  for a synopsis of the plot, characters and themes. Briefly, six years before the opening of the book, the entire Blackwood family save three, was murdered by arsenic at dinner. The surviving family members, Constance, the older sister who stood trial for the murder and was acquitted; Merricat, the younger sister who narrates the book; and Uncle Julian, who was poisoned but survives as an invalid, live in isolation in their big house on the edge of a village. The villagers shun and taunt the Blackwood family.
Most of the book group participants had read Jackson's short story, 'the Lottery', in which a village annually chooses a victim to be ritually stoned to death, a story which has disturbed generations of high school students and caused widespread outrage when it first appeared in the New Yorker magazine in 1948. From this common American reading experience, we all knew that Jackson's writing has a dark tone and that she writes about the potential for evil in people. We Have Always Lived in the Castle explores that idea also. The Blackwood household and the villagers mutually despise each other and are both capable of violence and cruelty towards each other in thought and actions.
The book falls into the horror genre, with the elements of the outsider personality which becomes violent and while there is the spooky mansion looming over a poor village, this is not a haunted house mystery. There are also elements of witchcraft in Merricat's strange rituals and burying of talismans to ward of intruders and protect her house.
We wondered exactly what was the motive for the arsenic poisonings and although the book eventually reveals the poisoner, the author never explains why. We also wondered exactly what was the nature of the psychopathy of the narrator and hauled out the DSM but then decided a diagnosis didn't really matter to the overall understanding of the book.
I would recommend this book to reading groups looking for something other than recent bestsellers and "psychological fiction" that is so popular with today's reading groups. It is easy to borrow from other libraries on interlibrary loan, it is available in paperback and there is a considerable body of literary criticism about the works of Shirley Jackson. Jackson inspired Stephen King and many other horror authors, so I would recommend it to King fans and fans of the horror genre.
Related websites: The Works of Shirley Jackson , a website of Kristen Hubard, a graduate student at VCU with links for more websites for horror fans.
NYT obituary of Shirley Jackson
Monstrous Acts and Little Murders, an article by Jonathan Lethem for Salon about Shirley Jackson

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