A few weeks ago, I read Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and loved the creepiness of it. Since then, a good number of people have commented that they prefer Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. That, together with the gorgeous cover of the Penguin edition, convinced me to read it right away, even though I rarely read books by the same author in quick succession.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle is twisted, slightly bizarre, claustrophobic, and full of little remarks that constantly forced me to readjust how I looked at the characters. The story is well written, reads very smoothly, and has an opening paragraph that stuck with me.
My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.
Whereas The Haunting of Hill House was creepy, We Have Always Lived in the Castle was quietly unsettling. There is very little action, aside from the mob scene towards the end, so my unease while reading came mostly from the atmosphere created by the unreliable narrator, whose grip on reality is questioned right from the beginning.
Mary Katherine, or Merricat, is neurotic and quirky. While she doesn’t consider herself a witch, she is almost constantly weaving spells and performing magical rituals. She is eighteen years old, but because of her childish behavior and the way she is treated by her sister Constance, I often thought of her as being much younger. Constance is equally odd, unable to go beyond the house and garden and being content with a continuous routine of cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the women’s incapacitated uncle. Even though Constance seems to be the responsible character, there is always the lurking question of whether she is manipulated by Merricat. At the same time, the sisterly love between them is never in doubt.
Based on The Haunting of Hill House, and also Jackson’s short story “The Lottery,” the ending of Merricat and Connie’s story surprised me. I was expecting a big bang, but got more of a slow fizzle, with a steady descent into the grotesque. There was really nothing wrong with; it fit well the rest of the story. It simply wasn’t what I expected, and so I felt slightly disappointed. I probably should have stuck to my rule of not reading the same author twice in a short period of time.
Still, I enjoyed this book and I plan to re-read it at some point. An added and odd bonus: I have driven through Bennington, VT, and I swear I could recognize the town just from the few descriptions Merricat gives the reader at the beginning.