Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Scary Book Club: "We Have Always Lived in the Castle" by Shirley Jackson


     Some stories are yours. You may not have written them, and, for example, someone may have written them back in 1962 before you were born. But, nonetheless. You know they are yours from the moment you finish the first sentence, paragraph, page, chapter, and there is no stopping. 

     This is how I found Shirley Jackson's final novel, "We Have Always Lived in the Castle." It is a novel that defies categorization, and is beloved to the Ghost because of that and so many reasons. It begins:

     "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 d s, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.." 

     If that opening paragraph does not make you read more, I cannot help you, and we will part ways here. 
     At risk of falling into hyperbole, the novel is a masterpiece. Jackson clocks her pages in at well under two-hundred; sparring not a word. Each description—through Mary Katherine’s words—of the world the Blackwoods live in—the sanctuary of her sister and the house, where they happen to care for their sick uncle, the beautiful, life-giving garden and woods and the frightful town outside—is at once deeply relatable, unsettling and comforting.

     The novel is often described as a Gothic mystery, and there are many mysteries afoot. Not the least of which is who poisoned the dead members of the Merricat and Constance’s family—her late parents, brother and Uncle Julian’s wife. But, perhaps, the most intriguing mysteries are what make the characters tick; why Merricat believes buried personal objects offer protection, why Constance is afraid of strangers and to leave the house, why Uncle Julian’s mind continues to decline—and why, when he arrives, cousin Charles is easily one of the most detestable characters I have read throughout literature. 

     Jackson’s last novel is timeless, but could not be more of the moment in the pandemic sheltering in place and quarantines of our current time. Merricat leaves her house only to go to the supermarket for necessary groceries; and, as necessary, books from the library. “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” is a novel of family and of anxiety; of mental illness and tragedy. Of creating lives and truths for ourselves; of ghosts and witches, and little girls who are as much like a cat as they are human.

Author Shirley Jackson, C. Erich Hartmann

If you have not read this novel, I encourage you to do so. The Ghost recently picked this for a book club selection to revisit; and, having first read this more than a decade ago, the story is as important, engrossing and weird as when I first opened the cover.

Film Adaptation: "We Have Always Lived in the Castle" 2019"

     In 2019, director Stacie Passon became the first to take a crack at adapting this 1962 novel for the screen. I had not watched it until after rereading the novel, and though the release was to little fan fare but generally favorable reviews, I found it a well-meaning failure. There is much here to be admired, and those involved are clearly fans of the text. Taissa Farmiga, of spooky fame from TV’s American Horror Story, excels as Merricat. Her speech, her walk (while never described in the novel) is a brilliant choice. The other actors are less strong—Alexandra Daddario has moments were she shines as Constance, but more often than not the writing stifles the character. Crispin Glover is a fine Uncle Julian with a certain creepy gravitas, and most of the townspeople are sufficiently menacing. 

     Sebastain Stan’s cousin Charles fails to deliver, however. In Jackson’s prose, he is one of the most hateful characters in literature; the script, though, tosses all restraint away, and the impact of the character is lost. Also, while in the novel it is easily read the Charles uses his sex appeal to charm Constance, the degrees this film takes them to, while showing some restraint by modern standards, is too much. The shots of the moon where Merricat wants to go live with her sister are beautiful and nearly justify the film on their own. However, decisions like removing much of Merricat’s cat Jonas and calling Merricat’s rituals explicitly spells remove much of the mystery, magic and psychology which is so engaging in the novel. And the changes to the ending are unforgivable.

     Read the book. Shirley Jackson’s fairy tale of urban legend is a beautiful, creeping tale of the family, home and life, which will be around for years to come.

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