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When I was a little girl, I fantasized about living in a castle. I imagine a bunch of us did, especially after reading Dealing with Dragons or Ella Enchanted or whichever Terry Goodkind book your parents kept on a low shelf.
But my dream castle wasn’t draped in pink tulle or bustling with cooks and servants, and I wasn’t a princess. I wanted to live in a drafty, abandoned ruin overgrown with moss and ivy, and I wanted to live there completely alone, reading books and eating wild berries and making friends with owls. Also, I wanted the townspeople to go in fear of me.
Basically, I wanted to be a witch. Most little girls do, I think, or else there wouldn’t be so many of us who were secretly disappointed when our eleventh birthdays passed without a letter from Hogwarts. (Don’t front like you didn’t check the chimney to be sure.)
If you’re a weird kid like me, you will love We Have Always Lived in the Castle. You probably already do.
Shirley Jackson’s vision of a castle meshes much more with my adolescent version than with the Cinderella kind. The Blackwood house is a fenced-in mansion, empty and echoing and decaying slowly, eventually degrading into a scorched husk of a building that stands, isolated, above the world even as it crumbles into its own foundations. It keeps things out, and also keeps things in.
When I first read this book at age 10, I recognized myself in the misanthropic Merricat (Mary Katherine) Blackwood, a happily feral late-teen narrator intent on keeping the world at large out of her home. Her personal occult rituals of burying things in the corners of the property and nailing things to trees spoke to me, and made sense in a world that I still wasn’t totally sure wasn’t governed by my own thoughts and wishes.
Reading it much later in life, I recognize that eighteen-year-olds should not still be nailing shit to trees. She came into focus as an unreliable narrator for the first time. It was a shock to realize that the character I had remembered as sympathetic was definitely the villain, or at least an antihero, an undergrown and willfully undeveloped child trying to stop time.
When we meet her, all of Merricat’s charms and protections against change have been successful. She’s managed to preserve her home in amber for the past six years, trapping her two remaining family members, sister Constance and elderly uncle Julian, in a waking dream. But then, an outsider enters the picture; Cousin Charles comes to visit, a relative Merricat has never met and instinctively mistrusts.
As a kid, I was on board with MC. Charles, a greedy fortune-hunter, ruins Merricat’s constructed world. His disruptive influence attacks her delayed puberty, refused womanhood, and ascetic existence. He is the outside world, and masculinity, invading a private and feminine space. To 10-year-old me, this was horrific, and I hated him.
As an adult, I recognize that he is, while a jerk, a garden-variety jerk. Merricat is the real monster. The difference in my perception over time makes me terrified of children. How do you know your 12-year-old isn’t scheming about how to kill the neighbor’s dog? How can you be sure?
The greatest evil in the book comes from Merricat’s innocence, because she doesn’t yet have the experience that engenders empathy. The world exists only in relation to her, and given too much power, she destroys without regret:
“I found a nest of baby snakes near the creek and killed them all; I dislike snakes and Constance had never asked me not to.”
The central characters of the book, Merricat and her sister Constance, are two halves of the same mind. Constance is a fearful but not entirely spiritless foil to Merricat’s angry wood sprite; Merricat has no conscience, and relies entirely on Constance as a moral compass. They communicate in the language of sisters, without speaking, but with a depth of understanding beyond words. This is a great book to share with your sister if people say your relationship is “especially close” or “creepy and coven-like.”
One of the things that makes Merricat such a compelling teenaged girl character is that she simply could not give two fucks about her thigh gap or whether boys are looking at her. The novel is mercifully free of any of the “she was not beautiful, but she had a certain vigor when she smiled that made her handsome” bullshit, and Merricat never spends any time in front of a mirror unless she’s breaking it. She’s too busy killing entire generations of snakes.
I simultaneously loathe and love Merricat. She is dangerous and full of hate and spite, and she is also an outlet and mirror for my own hate and spite. I want to be her, and I also fear that I already am her. She represents total freedom, a radical kind of freedom that looks more like loneliness and madness. Her fate is the traditional concept of freedom taken to its extreme.
Merricat gets the happy ending she wants. She shuts out the world, cloistering away with her sister in the burned-out ruin of a dead estate, living exactly the way my child self imagined to be perfect: the utterly isolated existence of a mythic being on the borders, forever preserved from time and change. It’s fantastic, and beautiful, and terrible.
Jackson’s characters are often twisted examples of humanity shaped by loneliness, sometimes afraid and always mistrustful, but they’re never uncertain of themselves. Merricat never wavers in the absolute certainty that what she’s doing, and what she’s done, has all been for the best.
Jackson’s oeuvre brims with examples of these women; radically free women largely uninterested in men (or actively repulsed by them), wracked with pain but adhering to a stubborn sense of self. Their tragic ends are viewed as tragic only by outsiders.
Eleanor in Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House longs to be forever connected with the house she herself calls evil, and ends up relieved to be swallowed into it. Merricat steals her sister Constance from the world, burning every bridge so that they’ll never be bothered again outside of fearful offerings of food from superstitious villagers. (Doesn’t that sound kind of nice? People bringing you biscuits and gravy while you just get to read and hang out with your cat all day? I would trade.)
The author’s own life story, heartrendingly documented by biographer Julia Oppenheimer in Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson, helps shed some light on her parade of troubled characters.
She died young, at 48 years old, from a combination of addictions and hard living. Though a celebrated writer, she was also expected by the standards of the time period in which she lived to be a high-performing housewife. Her memoirs of raising children are darkly comic, as in this exchange with a hospital receptionist from Life Among the Savages:
“Writer,” I said.
“Housewife,” she said.
“Writer,” I said.
“I’ll just put down housewife,” she said.
Late in life, the increasingly agoraphobic Jackson sequestered herself in her bedroom. She died while her four children were still very young. This is her last novel, and it emerged from the feverish mind of a woman unrecognizable in her own light-hearted memoirs.
The voice of Merricat may, in part, be so effective and chilling because it’s a voice Jackson heard every day, in her own mind; a voice telling her to stay inside, to say the right words to keep evil away, to soothe herself by imagining walking on the dead bodies of her tormentors.
Indulge your inner witch and pick up this fascinating novel. If you read it in your youth, revisit it. There are things lurking there that merit another look.
If you've already read every Shirley Jackson book too many times to count, you're in luck; Random House is putting out a brand-new collection of hitherto unpublished works edited by two of her children, called Let Me Tell You, adding nearly 450 pages to her relatively modest body of work. I would read 450 pages of her grocery lists.
Do y’all have any requests for the next meeting of the Misandrist Book Club? Maybe bring something to drink with you next time. Just remember, misandrists do not drink...wine.