Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?In Riddley Walker, Russell Hoban makes powerful use of children's rhymes to create atmosphere. In We Have Always Lived in the Castle, there's only one rhyme, but it re-echoes throughout, epitomizing the novel's darkly naive tone. Merricat is Mary Katherine Blackwood, the eighteen-year-old narrator, and Connie is her beloved elder sister Constance. The Castle is the grand house they live in with their disabled Uncle Julian; because we see them through Merricat's eyes, and she is clearly quite disturbed, we never really see the Castle and its adjacent village as part of modern America - they are always on the verge of becoming a fantasy realm. Six years ago the rest of the Blackwood family were murdered. Constance was accused of the crime but acquitted for lack of evidence. The villagers, whose children taunt Merricat with the rhyme above, still hate and fear both of them. This is the situation when a cousin, Charles, comes to visit, upsetting the balance of this strange household.
Oh no,said Merricat, you'll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!
The Gothic has been an important strain in American literature since well before its two great nineteenth-century exponents Poe and Hawthorne. But those two writers stand for the two main currents in American Gothic, the Southern and New England varieties. After all, the Gothic depends on a strong sense of the past, and the South and New England are the oldest parts of the United States, the areas where the image of a castle or a grand old house haunted by ancestral ghosts seems least incongruous. Also both have strong religious traditions and the sense of evil that goes with them. And Gothic without a sense of evil is just a kind of literary fancy dress.
Shirley Jackson was born in California, but lived in Vermont. In her six novels you can see her working her way into the New England Gothic tradition, creating more and more convincingly a world that is both magical and contemporary. And she has the sharpest eye for evil of any writer I can think of. For Jackson, it doesn't come as buckets of blood and torture porn and it never comes unmixed; there are no monsters in her work. There is evil in the Castle, but there is also charm, humour and a particularly touching portrayal of sisterly love. And there is evil outside the Castle, too, in the villagers' hatred - understandable in its origin but always ready to go out of control.
Much of the fascination of the book is in Merricat's voice, childlike in spite of her age. Jackson is superb on children, and wrote a couple of books about her own experiences as a mother: one of them is called life Among the Savages, and as this title implies, her theme, for all the love and humour with which she writes, is that they are as prone to evil as the rest of us - indeed, it's more obvious in children because they haven't learned to hide it. The children persecute Merricat with their rhymes and her own vindictiveness towards Charles is inseparable from her childish preoccupation with the comfortable rituals of her life.
Castle is a short novel, almost a novella, and utterly gripping. The major twist in the plot is one that almost every reader will have seen coming long before, but there is another, almost incidental, surprise which is quite devastating. It's the work of a brilliant writer at the height of her powers: sadly,she died soon after completing it, at the age of 49, worn out by psychological problems and abuse of prescription drugs. Her vision cannot have been a comfortable one to live with, and it says a lot for her both as a person and an artist that her work, though always disturbing, is never depressing. (Much of it is extremely funny.) She is better known in the US than the UK - I'd never heard of her till a reader recommended her on one of the Guardian Books blogs. Even there, her reputation seems to rest mostly on one short story, 'The Lottery', and on her novel The Haunting of Hill House, which was made into a successful film. There have been rumours of a forthcoming film of Castle for a long time now, but I haven't heard of a release date yet. I'll return to Jackson in the future, as I will to several of the other authors I cover in this blog.
Next time, a quirky thriller by an imaginative and immensely prolific US novelist who excels across several genres.