Sunday, February 26, 2012

I Begin by Cheating: Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Was this whole idea a mistake?  Did I think it would be easy, chewing through all those books I didn’t want to read in the first place?  Smelling of ought-and-should hasn’t improved them.  They're not just leftovers anymore; they're last week's boiled sprouts!  Maybe there's nothing wrong with them, but no one who sniffs the open container is going to have anything to do with them.

Clearly I needed an appetizer.  But this week's reading experience was more like being eaten than eating.  When I found my errant copy of We Have Always Lived in the Castle during last week's packing frenzy, I was easy meat.  It pounced on me from its hiding place under the bookshelf, waving its lurid cover in my face.  I knew it was forbidden! I'd already read it once, and besides, I was supposed to be working. But it was so small . . . so perfect . . . so strange . . .  On top of that, Jonathan Lethem’s sympathetic article in Salon had been teasing me for years.  Is it my fault that I was devoured whole?  I read the first third right then, in the basement, in secret, surrounded by unfilled boxes.  Fellow readers, surely you sympathize.

Now I’m bursting with things to say about it, but can’t, lest I spoil the big reveal.  I am sufficiently punished. 

Merricat Blackwood, her sister Constance, and their frail Uncle Julian have lived in splendid isolation at the family estate for the last several years. The Blackwoods were never popular, but the town’s hatred finds new focus when most of the family is found dead of poison.  Now the remnant (one of whom is probably guilty of murder) can’t venture out without drawing taunts and stares. Protected by woods, barbed wire, and possibly witchcraft, they live in a world of their own—until Cousin Charles shows up to shatter their fragile equilibrium. The murder is unsettling, but it’s the rest of the story that’ll keep you up nights . . .   

Damn, I wish I could talk about this book more fully! But I’ll restrict myself to a few leading questions:

Why were the Blackwoods poisoned? Why were they so hated? Why was the doctor too late to save them? And who’s really responsible for their deaths? 

I'm off to eat my brussels sprouts.  Before they eat me.