Your Home May Be Your Castle, but…
Posted by: Neil Hollands
Like many readers, I encountered Shirley Jackson’s story “The Lottery” in high school and loved it. Sadly, like most of those other students, and I’m betting many of you, I didn’t follow up and never read anything else by Jackson. She’s one of those authors I always knew I’d like, but somehow she never made it to the top of the pile.
After hearing several readers at my science fiction/fantasy group rhapsodize about Jackson at our recent October meeting, I decided it was time to remedy my deficiency. I have version (yes, I know, it’s lacking) of The Haunting of Hill House sketched out in my head after seeing two film adaptations, and I was in the mood for a novel, not stories, so I decided to try We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
The narrative voice in this little novel is unusual, spooky and unforgettable. Mary Katherine Blackwood is a childish 18-year-old, and as the novel opens we discover that she lives in the big house outside a small town, and that her family is not liked. It’s not clear at first whether the family deserves its infamy or is just the victim of petty jealousies. Mary Kat is a bit simple, a lot mystical, often skittish, and often speaking in riddles. Readers will have to judge for themselves whether she is paranoid, disturbed in some other way, or a true victim of horrific events and cruelty. She might even have some magical powers. That’s all for you as a reader to judge, and each will come to different conclusions, which makes this a fantastic book for book groups to discuss.
As the novel continues, we meet Mary Kat’s older sister Constance, also a naif and perhaps even more psychologically damaged than her sister, but still the family caretaker. Connie’s an agoraphobic and can barely receive company, let alone leave the big old house on the edge of town. The last family member is Uncle Julian, wheelchair-bound and suffering from bouts of dementia (although again, each reader will have to decide whether he’s demented or sane, a victim or a victimizer). We also discover a horrible crime in the family’s recent past, the crime for which the family has become villified by the locals, whose response has been so cruel that one has to wonder who has become the crime’s greatest victim. Events come to a head when Cousin Charles Blackwood becomes the first new visitor to gain entry into the Blackwood household in several years. That’s as much plot detail as I’ll share. You should read the book for yourself to discover the rest.
I can’t think of a novel that on one level is so simple (young adults could read this and enjoy it), but on another could make me think as deeply about what happened to these characters, about what they deserve now, and about the nature of right, wrong, and of ethical judgments. The atmosphere is thick and the suspense builds to almost unbearable levels. Unlike a lot of contemporary horror, Jackson’s book is entirely psychological, and while traumatic events occur, there is no graphic violence and even the language is clean throughout. It’s interesting to look at through feminist or psychoanalytical critical stances, but it transcends any one approach. It’s an enduring masterpiece, and I’m only sad that it took me so many years to pick it up. I think the stories beyond “The Lottery” had better come next.