James Everington is a writer of subtle and disturbing short stories – his collection The Other Room is available for kindle and more of his work can be found at Scattershot Writing and Penny Dreadnought.
Here’s James on Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle…
We Have Always Lived In The Castle is not as well known as some of Shirley Jackson’s other books and stories, but it has at least a strong a claim as The Lottery and The Haunting Of Hill House to being her masterpiece. Told in poised, controlled prose, it is the story of two sisters and their uncle living alone in their ‘castle’, isolated from and contemptuous towards the people of the village. As we learn in the first paragraph, everyone else in the family is dead. We are told this by the narrator Mary Katherine Blackwood, known as ‘Merricat’ – childish, narcissistic, given to daydreams of strange charm or savagery.
It is not a crime novel, and yet the list of wrong-doings contained in it is long: patricide; matricide; poisoning, looting; naked attempts at gold-digging; manslaughter; and involuntary (?) arson. All this takes place against a supposedly realistic backdrop of mid-century, small town America. Yet no justice seems to be done: the characters suffer neither manmade punishment nor apparently any feelings of guilt or sin. Before the novel begins Constance, Merricat’s sister, was acquitted of the murders she’s apparently guilty of…
Wrongdoing implies rules have been broken, but in Merricat’s view of the world these aren’t the rules of law or even God – it is telling that the person from the village who seems to represent officialdom and authority is the fire-chief, not a policeman or priest.
For the truth is, running underneath and contrary to the realistic trappings of the book, We Have Always Lived In The Castle is a surreal, twisted fable – a modern day Grimm’s fairy tale with a grimly ironic ‘happy’ ending. The tension between this, and the more realistic aspects of the novel, are what gives it its edge. Ambiguity often implies a soft blurring of meaning, but here ambiguity is razor-sharp and dangerous.
- James Everington
The Criminal Classics series was prompted by a post which originally appeared at Crime Fiction Lover.