Thursday, June 13, 2024

We Have Always Lived in the Castle


A sprawling estate between the town and the highway, Blackwell Manor once had more than three occupants. The trio living there now are the survivors of a multiple murder during a night when their dinner was laced with arsenic. The primary suspect, found to be not guilty, was Constance Blackwood. Now 28 years old, she has become agoraphobic and never steps foot outside the house. All the grocery shopping is carried out by her 18-year-old sister Mary Katherine Blackwood, known to everyone as Merricat. Superstitious and deludedly so, she’s often picked on by the unsympathetic townspeople who have come up with their own urban legends about their wealthy and reclusive neighbors. Completing the trio is sickly Uncle Julian who had a taste of arsenic but managed to survive, albeit now confined to a wheelchair and forever trying to write a memoir of that fateful night. One day, a certain Charles Blackwood claiming to be a cousin knocks at their door, with his own ideas about what to do with the house and family fortune.

I was expecting something sinister and even supernatural, given all the mention of witchcraft and stuff. What we get instead is murder, except that it is now all in the past and just serves as a backstory for the current reputation and consequential treatment of the protagonists by the townsfolk. What makes the novel somehow exciting is the prospect of another death. We get a confession/confirmation through dialogue towards the end but it just leaves us hanging with questions that we know will no longer be answered. And then we realize that this isn’t really a murder mystery but rather a curious case study on agoraphobia.

I am still intrigued. Why poison those who were poisoned? What was the criteria as far as who were to be included was concerned? Why was Constance found not guilty? The cover-up angle becomes convincing as you flip the pages which, once again, leads you to all the Why questions that are never answered. Perhaps Jackson opted not to elaborate on that so the reader can focus more on the agoraphobia angle, the isolation in many different forms that the trio end up subjecting themselves to in a physical, emotional, social, and financial way from the rest of their neighbors.

The name Shirley Jackson rarely rings any bells, which is strange because this author is responsible for at least two literary works that have commanded attention during their time in the spotlight, namely: that short story called The Lottery; and the gothic novel The Haunting of Hill House, which has been adapted in film and television many times over through the decades after its publication. We Have Always Lived in the Castle has also been adapted into a movie, but does not seem to enjoy the same popularity as the writer’s other works. As a novel, it is just the right amount of creepy, but open ended and a bit lackluster.

Or maybe the reader is just expecting something more out of it. Merricat as an anchor to the story is interesting. She is an obviously unreliable narrator but the feebleness of her mind, probably indicative of her stunted upbringing due to the family tragedy, is just a different, quite trippy in an emo sense, point of view. Since it is she who is narrating, we can argue that we never really get to see the other characters for who they truly are, because we just have to trust Merricat’s judgment. In a way, she is Constance’s foil, the yin to her yang, as if they were two halves of the same conflicted person.

Even more interesting is the novel serving as a reflection of Jackson’s own miserable existence as a bored housewife back in the day as well as the alienation she felt from the town she lived in. In a way, this is her literary diss track to her own neighbors back in the day. Viewed from a psychological perspective, such a scenario is not something alien to us. Remember the pandemic? Except that those two years were not really under our control. In the case of people suffering from agoraphobia, it’s a self-imposed isolation from everybody else, and observing the way the society around them responds to that is a spectacle in its own right.

My only complaint about the novel is how the character of Charles is handled. His arrival is teeming with many potential subplots, the most obvious one being his opportunistic preying on the family fortune. Still, there is that unresolved implied romance angle between him and Constance. It just feels like there could’ve been more to the story than we know, but Jackson decides not to go there. Cousin Charles’ ending feels anticlimactic at best, after kicking up a storm in the household.

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