Thursday, June 30, 2011

Happiness is...a good book. (Summer Reading edition #4)

We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Author: Shirley Jackson

Pages: 146
Age Range: Adult
Published: 1962
Genre: Horror/Suspense
Cover Score: ****
Overall Grade: ***
Rating: P

I'm not sure I'm qualified to review this book.  I'm pretty sure there are a lot of things I missed.  (For exampleJonathan Lethem, who wrote the introduction, talked about how Uncle Julian was possibly spared from the first round of murders because he was homosexual.  Not sure why that would spare him and no where in the book did I gather anything to suggest he was. But then again, maybe I missed something...)

Anyway, with that disclaimer, on to the review!

I went into this really hoping for a good, scary summer read (not sure why I need a scary book in the summer but somehow it just feels right) but it was rather disappointing.  Not that it didn't have its creepy moments and eerie characters, but I read it late at night and didn't have any problems turning the lights out right after and drifting easily to sleep. Bah! Check out that cover though.  That is pretty darn creepy!

Two sisters live together with their wheelchair-bound Uncle Julian in a house on the edge of town. The rest of their family members all died from poisoning several years earlier.  The townspeople have a hey day with the events creating chants and taunts about the house and the girls, daring each other to touch the front door or cross the property and so on.  Constance, the oldest, contributes to the strange tales by never leaving the house but steps into the mother role doing the cooking, cleaning and nurturing of the other two. Mary Katherine (Merricat) ventures into town every now and then to purchase supplies and stop by the library but she does her best not to talk to anyone.  And Uncle Julian spends his time trying to reconstruct the events of that fateful night in order to write a book.

They're comfortable in their self-imposed exile.  Some of the more well-meaning/nosy neighbors stop by regularly for tea and to pass judgments and distribute advice but for the most part they are rather isolated until one day their cousin Charles shows up. His flattery and attention woos Constance and she begins making plans to change things and perhaps even leave the house. He forces his way into their father's room, usurping his possessions and begins to make decisions for them all.  His flattery and attention woos Constance and she begins to fall under his spell, making plans to change things, leave the house, put Uncle Julian in a home and send Merricat off to school.  But Merricat sees the cruel way he treats Uncle Julian and how his conversation is always turned to money and she inadvertently (?) takes matters into her own hands. 

As a result of her trashing his room a fire starts from his dropped pipe.  They all escape to the front lawn where they helplessly watch their house burn. Neighbors come and initially help but quickly the scene turns ugly and mob mentality takes over. Furniture saved from the fire is smashed through the remaining windows.  The chants and taunts are screamed out by maniacal adults wanting blood and the girls are pushed, surrounded, and terrorized before they are able to escape and find refuge in the woods. Uncle Julian dies and Charles melts away into the night. After things calm down the girls return to the home where they barricade themselves in never to be seen again. Several townspeople come by again and call through the windows to the girls they know are inside shouting apologies and swearing they didn't mean anything by it. And eventually Charles resurfaces and attempts to worm his way in again.  But the girls have learned their lesson and trust no one but themselves. The end.

Like I said earlier, I really wanted this to be scary but it was mostly strange and disturbing. There are some serious psychological issues at play here. Without giving away all of the major plot points let's just say that the family is twisted and they all have their own little demons that make them literally crazy. But the townspeople aren't much better. 

In her short story The Lottery the townspeople all gather on a regular basis in order to stone someone to death. Every other day of the year they are your average citizens, your friends, co-workers, neighbors, and yet they find a way to set all of that normality aside and logic their way into committing cruel murders over and over again. The townspeople in Castle are much the same. It's scary how easily a person (or group of people) can put aside morality and conscience to commit a truly heinous act. There's a bit of demon inside all of us I suppose but Ms. Jackson has a way of zeroing in on the worst case scenario and reminding us all how fine that line between goodness and twisted evil really is. (Hmm, I think this will get spookier the more I ponder it, but I would have liked a little more instant gratification during the reading process...oh well!)

Recommended for fans of the slightly creepy from teens on up.  And if anyone has some brilliant insights or additions to my haphazard thoughts, I'd love to hear them!

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