Arsenic and Old Lace

9 Aug

Well it’s the final week before I go on my first legit vacation of the year (as in the kind where you leave your city of residence) and God, when not busy crashing the economy and unleashing natural disasters, is seriously testing my patience.  Work-wise, everything that could go wrong has, and technologically the Internet is hellbent on making itself only functional enough for me to stare longingly at various “page loading” screens and error messages while tallying up the hours I’m losing.

Well whatever God, go back to combing your beard and hanging out with Rick Perry, because I refuse to be thwarted. I will go to the beach next week, during which time I will not so much as open a laptop, because I’ll be too busy exposing my sensitive skin to its first rays of summer sunlight, and/or eating french fries and funnel cakes.

Fortunately, I’ve managed to limit my Code Red freakouts to office hours; at home, I’m soothed by the boisterous return of Jersey Shore and Bad Girls Club and on the train I’ve been gratefully lost in the world of We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

Now, you may not think it right off, but chances are high you’re familiar with Shirley Jackson. Despite having written numerous books, she’s easily most famous for one—The Haunting of Hill House, which has creeped the shit out of people for many years. Jackson is also known for The Lottery, one of the most celebrated short stories of all time (and also the basis for a kind of hilarious 1996 movie starring Keri Russell), which takes place in a town where (spoiler alert) an annual drawing of names leads to a climactic ritual stoning. 

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is in the same vein as The Lottery: it takes place in an unnamed village where Mary Katherine Blackwood lives with her sister Constance and eccentric Uncle Julian. The trio are all that remains of the wealthy Blackwood family, the rest of whom died in an infamous incident of arsenic poisoning. The post-poisoning family scandal—and trial against supposed culprit Constance, who was arrested and later acquitted—has insulated the Blackwoods against the rest of the villagers, who openly despise them. They live behind closed doors in an enormous mansion; only Mary Katherine ventures out to buy groceries. That is until cousin Charlie, the son of their deceased father’s brother, comes to stay.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is beautifully simple. The story is told from the perspective of Mary Katherine, supposedly 18 but much younger-seeming, who despises outsiders, is heavily superstitious and spends most of her time with her cat Jonas. Because our worldview as readers is also Mary Katherine’s, it’s easy to envision the family’s isolation through her, an odd teenager who suffers the taunts of the villagers during her bi-weekly trips into town, who hides in the bushes on her own property, and who seems downright terrified at the intrusion of an outsider, even her own cousin. Much like the town in The Lottery was without identity, the village in Castle is a blank slate, populated only by Mary Katherine’s limited knowledge of it.

It’s hard to review a book like this, both because it’s unique in its nuance, and because I don’t want to give anything away. But Castle is a superb hybrid of novel and horror story, allegory and thriller. The plot reveals itself slowly, through hushed conversations or idle introspection, and yet from the first page you as a reader know, for lack of a better phrase, that some shit is about to go down. With everything you discover about the Blackwoods—Uncle Julian’s slipping grip on reality, Constance’s borderline disturbing sense of courtesy, Mary Katherine’s superstitious burying of household objects—you only wonder how long it will be before the outside world catches up with them.

THE VERDICT: 

It’s temping to assign some allegorical meaning to Castle; in his introduction to the book, author Jonathan Lethem says the novel’s sexual innuendo—young women living a pure life until a male intruder enters their home—is hard to ignore. He’s right that sex is an obvious theme to pounce on, but Castle touches on any number of topics—class, superstition, tradition, mourning—none of which I think Jackson intended as its sole purview.

I remember in freshman year of high school reading Lord of the Flies—English teachers’ go-to model for narrative allegory—and resenting my own teacher’s insistence on giving meaning to literally everything. (Did the color of the bird’s feathers really allude to the destructive power of fire, or was the bird just, you know, red?) Since then, I’ve been wary of parsing literature in the interest of finding “meaning.” So it’s entirely possible that I was supposed to get something out of Castle I didn’t, some deeper understanding of family conflict or “otherness” or arsenic-poisoning preparedness. I wasn’t really looking for those things. What I was looking for was a good suspense tale, a creepy story to distract my brain from work and stress and screaming subway babies. And that much I definitely got.

THE FACTS:
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TITLE: We Have Always Lived in the Castle
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AUTHOR: Shirley Jackson
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PAGES: 146 (in paperback)
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ALSO WROTE: The Lottery, The Haunting of Hill House
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SORTA LIKE: The Crucible meets Stephen King
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FIRST LINE: “My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood.”

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