Sunday, October 17, 2010

Halloween Reading: "We Have Always Lived in the Castle"

I often try to read something scary around Halloween. For the past 2 years, I stuck with the classics: Frankenstein, Dracula. This year, I thought I'd probably read something like Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, but instead, ended up reading Shirley Jackson's 1962 novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

My friend Stuart recommended it to me, saying that I would love the narrator, Mary Katherine "Merricat" Blackwood. "She's 18 years old, she's beautiful, and she's a murderess!" said Stuart.

From this description I imagined that Merricat would be some kind of high-school femme-fatale or chilly blonde ice queen. It turns out that she's much more idiosyncratic, and much scarier, than that (and my friend may have misremembered the novel a bit... Merricat's older sister, Constance, is supposed to be the beautiful one). Merricat may be 18, but her development seems to have been arrested at age 12 or so... the same age as she was when her whole family, except for her sister Constance and her uncle Julian, died of arsenic poisoning.

As Jonathan Lethem writes in the introduction to my edition, Merricat is a "feral, presexual tomboy" with an unforgettable voice. She must be one of the best "unreliable narrators" of all time. Her story contains no supernatural horror elements like Dracula or Frankenstein, but I found it much creepier, and much more of a gripping read, than either of those novels. Perhaps it's creepy precisely because it is not supernatural; it is a frightening portrait of a psychologically damaged girl and her codependent relationship with her older sister.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is definitely one of the best novels I've read this year, along with the similarly creepy and page-turning The Secret History, by Donna Tartt (my review). Interestingly, both Tartt and Jackson have ties to Bennington, VT; Jackson was married to a professor at Bennington College, and, 30 or so years later, Tartt was a student there. And both of these novels take place in a Bennington-like, northern New England setting. There must be something in the water up in Vermont...


Marguerite said...

Ahh I LOVED "The Secret History." It was so compelling, even when you weren't quite sure you wanted to read it anymore... I'll have to put this book on my list of things to read when I have access to a proper bookstore again.

Marissa said...

Oh yes, how are you surviving life without a proper bookstore? (though from your blog it sounds like you are way too busy to spend much time reading!) I'm not sure I could do that! I am a high-maintenance girl, at least when it comes to reading material.