OK, first, I feel like I should probably explain what happened last week. If you didn’t notice (and how could you have missed it?), I didn’t post anything last week. So, on the day of, Wednesday, I was driving to Memphis. The day before, I was packing. The day after, I was preparing for my dissertation defense, and ever since I’ve been getting used to not doing my dissertation any longer (yes, that means I passed). So I never got to put up a post in place of the one I missed. At a certain point it seemed like I should just wait until this Wednesday. But of course I spent today prepping everything for A: dissertation paperwork (I said it was done, not that I had gotten the graduate school to admit it was done) and B: a new job I’m in line to get. Yay. Anyway. Here’s my blog post. This time, on Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
In my little series of posts on non-traditional fantasy novels, this one is way out there. As in, so far out it’s not fantasy in any arguable way. It is a work of realism, focused on a young woman who, when a child, murdered her family, save her uncle, who survived the arsenic, and her sister, whom she loved too much to poison. They’ve just been living out in their old house for years since the older sister was put on trial and acquitted – not that anyone believes the acquittal. The actual murderer is Mary Catherine, known to nearly everyone, including the children who sing songs about the murder, as Merrycat. Her sister, who accepted the blame to protect her, is Constance. The doddering, mentally unsound uncle is Julian.
Why the hell am I writing about these characters? Over the course of the book Merrycat deals with the glares of people in town – before we know why anyone glares at her – a distant cousin comes to visit, hoping to get into the money their father left behind upon his death, and their house burns down when Merrycat brushes the cousin’s still lit pipe into a waste basket full of newspapers. I should point out that, as a late teen at least, Merrycat pretty much doesn’t understand that she will cause a fire by doing that. She wants to fuck with the cousin, surely, but she actually does not understand how fire works at a basic level.
This probably has to do, in some way, with her belief that she’s a witch. And the book never quite says she’s wrong, even though, yeah, she’s probably not magic. The coincidences do pile up: she buries things all through the yard in order to protect herself and her sister from visitors, and once she nailed a book to a tree. This stuff was all immediately familiar to me. In fact, supposedly the thing with nailing stuff to trees to ward off unwanted visitors, witches, and the like still exists in some places near where I grew up, though I never heard of it when I was a kid. The day the book falls off the tree, finally rotted through, the cousin shows up and immediately begins to complain about Merrycat and try to convince Constance to let him run things.
Merrycat decides he must be a demon, and begins to perpetuate a magical campaign against him that does, in fact, lead to his expulsion from the house, though it’s because she’s sent to clean up her mess in his room (she rearranges it so the demon won’t be able to find its way out) and, as I said before, tosses the fire into the kindling.
The fire reveals the cousin cares only about the money – he tries to haul the safe out of the burning building while in the next room Uncle Julian dies of a heart attack. Then, as though his visit directly broke all the protections Merrycat created, the fire summons the fire brigade, and the inevitable onlookers. Once it’s clear the fire is only really going to damage the second story, the crowd grows restless, and they destroy most of the rest of the house.
Here’s where even the basic plot goes from crazy to craziest (the way the novel’s narrated already had the whole book in that region): Merrycat and Constance stay in the house. They refuse all help. They grew as much of their own food as they could, so they just stop going to town. Their diet is supplemented by the remorse of the town, which leads people to leave anonymous baskets of food. The sisters barricade their backyard so no one can get back there, and they live in the burned and broken house, eating from the two cups and few plates that survived unbroken.
I told you about the magic. The absolute sense of sympathy, between finding a hair in one’s toothbrush and using that as the filter for the day, seeking out “long, thin things” is how magical thinking works, to some degree. Augers and portents in fantasy fiction so often end up being simple to read signs, usually momentous, when in fact the act of thinking in a magical way, repeated, must necessarily layer itself over nearly every facet of one’s life. To really believe magic rules things is to think that a sign can appear warning of a war or a natural disaster – but also to think of a warning in the way the milk curdles about the livestock this season, or the way the birds fly and a sickness affecting other animals in the forest. Merrycat is the most convincing witch I have ever read, and she is not, in fact, really capable of any magic at all.
You may also be interested to learn Shirley Jackson thought she was a witch, and believed she could do magic, and this was the last novel published in her lifetime, and I believe the next to last novel she ever wrote. She was pretty crazy. Awesome crazy.