Sunday, 20 March 2016

We Have Always Lived in the Castle - Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson, where have you been all my life.  In fairness, you've been dead for 85% of it so it's not really your fault. I blame the publishers.  I blame critics for not dragging your work regularly into the spotlight.  I blame myself.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is only a novella - Jackson made her name with a short story, 'The Lottery', and she is clearly comfortable in the short form. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is the best neo-gothic or indeed American Gothic novella I have ever read.  It is a work of the highest art.  It is a work of genius.  Check out the first paragraph and weep with glee:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought 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 death-cup mushroom. Every one else in my family is dead.

It's worth reading that again when you have finished the story and all has been revealed. Then you realise the forensic precision of that list, the sort of list we all put together when we are six or seven but which is bad news when created by an eighteen year old. But, as you might guess, Merricat is not an ordinary girl, her childish precocity is not normal because she's not really a child any more.

To discuss the story in any detail would be to give too much away because every sentence here is a polished precision cog in the fictional machine. Every action and incident pays off in the end.  It is, in short, a masterpiece, not only of genre but of all literature.  It is beyond a must-read.  It ought to be compulsory for anyone who dares to venture onto similar turf.  It is an object lesson and an inspiration. I loved every word.

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