A Brush With Perfection

Rarely, rarely does a person get to sample perfection.  Because I have a tendency to ramble, I want to make that perfectly clear right up front: We Have Always Lived In The Castle is possibly one of the most perfect pieces of fiction I have ever read.  It is pure brilliance, and the fact that many people have probably never heard of it is nothing short of criminal.  No, this isn't hyperbole.

Castle is written by the brilliant Shirley Jackson.  You know Shirley Jackson.  Everyone does.  Even if you don't recognize her name, you know her.  All it takes is two words: The Lottery.  Yes.  That Shirley Jackson.

As for Castle (billed as a novel, but really more like of novella), well... imagine a haunted house with no hauntings.  A ghost story with no ghost.  If I had to pin it down, I'd call it the epitome of the weird tale, even though there's nothing supernatural going on.  But despite having no hauntings or ghosts or cosmic horror, this story piles on the dread and foreboding in a way few things I've ever read have managed.  In many ways, it's like watching two trains steaming towards each other in slow motion.  You know what's going to happen, but you just can't tear your eyes away.  And as the trains get closer, time slows more and more to just build upon that dread.  This isn't a horror story; it's a tale of dread and unease, and it's all the more horrifying for it.  It's like Thomas Ligotti in the real world, and the real world is terrifying enough as is.

Castle concerns two sisters and their infirm uncle.  Constance, who never leaves the property (and, indeed, never goes much past the garden); Uncle Julian, the infirm old uncle forever revising, organizing, and researching his memoirs; and Mary Katherine, our deeply unreliable narrator who generally goes by the portmanteau Merricat.

At first, the tale is simply one of exclusion and the pain of being The Other.  One could be sorely tempted to see this framed as a matter of class; the Blackwoods, being old money, view themselves as above the village, only venturing there as nature demands, while the townspeople are reasonably bitter.  And since everything is viewed through the eyes of a Blackwood, perhaps the villagers aren't that bad, and Merricat's just a bit of a bitch.

No.  No, that's not it.  That's not it at all.  After all, this is a Shirley Jackson piece, so leave your expectations at the door, and remember that everything is awful.  This is nothing so prosaic as class warfare.  This is the horror and prejudice of the small town and the festering resentment and hatred for anything Not Of The Tribe.

Even though it starts placidly enough, there's a dark undercurrent of dread that crawls into your brain from the very first paragraph:

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 deathcup mushroom.  Everyone else in my family is dead.
 It seems reasonable, if slightly maladjusted, but as the story continues, these opening words become more and more prescient.  The line about the werewolf gives us hints to Merricat's world view, including her belief in totemic or sympathetic magic, doing things like burying items or nailing a book to a tree to act as wards; whispering magic words into a glass, and then filling it with water and drinking the water to seal the word.  This is a constant undercurrent throughout the book as Merricat attempts to stop the world and does everything she can to maintain the status quo, especially in light of later events in the book.

Like the Lottery, this book also deals with conformity gone mad, but also with people gone mad.  The villagers' petty cruelties become outright violence towards the end of the tale, when the proverbial dam breaks and they can't contain their rage any more.  The violence and destruction is horrifying, because you know it is a bastion being destroyed, and that our leads are unable to cope in the real world.  And, in a beautiful twist, the house ends where a good many tales start: the dilapidated old that spawns countless ghost stories that will terrify children for generations.

Castle is a short read, but no words have been wasted.  Everything fits, everything matters, and everything builds towards the horrific ending.  It has the atmosphere and dread of a ghost story, but there's nothing supernatural to be seen (save in Merricat's unbalanced mind).  It's a truly haunting story that leaves you with questions even as it resolves.  Most of mine swirl around Constance.  We know Merricat is happy, stasis has been obtained, but I still wonder about Constance. Their world stopped six years ago -- Merricat's thoughts, personality, and maturity are the most visible as she narrates, and she narrates like one would expect from a twelve year old.  I can't help but wonder if Constance is happy, or if she finds herself trapped by the bonds of love, family, guilt, and obligation.

From what I've read about Shirley Jackson, I'd say it's a little from Column A, and a little from B.

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