Jimmy Cajoleas, author of The Good Demon, loves spooky books. He likes to write them: The Good Demon is a YA thriller about a girl named Clare who is dealing with the aftermath of an exorcism—her own. Cajoleas also likes to read them: He is a big fan of Shirley Jackson’s creepy classic We Have Always Lived In the Castle. Here, Cajoleas shares his love of We Have Always Lived In the Castle, and makes a strong case for curling up with it this Halloween.
Usually, when I’m picking out a book, I don’t like to read the jacket copy or any kind of plot synopsis first. Not to say that those things aren’t important; they just aren’t everything, especially if you’re being adventurous. Besides, I’ve read too many great books about subjects I didn’t think I was interested in and too many terrible books about stuff I like. For me, the ultimate test when picking out a book is to flip it open to a random page and read a couple of lines. If they feel good, I’ll take the book. If they don’t, well… I’ll try something else.
If you’re the kind of person who’s afraid of a spoiler, picking from the first few pages will do. This is how I wound up reading one of my favorite books of all time, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. I loved “The Lottery” and The Haunting of Hill House, but I’d never gone any deeper than that. I saw We Have Always Lived in the Castle hiding in the classics section of an airport bookstore, picked it up, and flipped open to a random page, as per my custom.
Here’s where I landed:
“I would not forget my magic words; they were MELODY GLOUCESTER PEGASUS, but I refused to let them into my mind.”
I don’t know how to describe the feeling of opening a book and finding something perfect inside. Maybe you know what I’m talking about. It’s like a holy vision, like the clouds part and reality unzips itself and you’re let into an entirely new world, a kind of lurking other reality, brighter and realer than anywhere you’ve ever been before. That’s how I felt about that one perfect sentence I’d just read. Immediately, I closed the book, walked to the counter, and paid. I couldn’t believe it. I knew that this would be the book for me, one I would love forever.
Why did those lines have such an impact on me? I have no idea. They just did. I’m sure I could analyze them, do a super-close-read at the structure, the music and rhythm and strangeness of the words, but I really don’t have any interest in doing that. I don’t need to know how the magic trick worked, just that it did work, and this book had already entered my heart.
The rest of the book is even better. Here’s the opening paragraph, itself a miracle of voice:
“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that 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. Everyone else in my family is dead.”
Hooked yet? Well, in any case, here’s a plot summary: Mary Katherine (or Merricat, as she is often called) lives in a stately house with her sister Constance and her uncle Julian. Most of the people in their town hate them. I mean, really, really hate them. Six years ago, the Blackwoods suffered a terrible tragedy—the family was poisoned at the dinner table (arsenic in the sugar bowl), resulting in the death of Mr. and Mrs. Blackwood, young son Thomas, and Aunt Dorothy. Uncle Julian only barely survived, and not entirely intact. Constance was put on trial, but she was declared innocent. The townspeople, however, are convinced that Constance is guilty, and they loathe her for it. They hate all the Blackwoods, resenting their guilt and money, their rich land left uncultivated, the aristocratic manners they maintain despite being accused murderers.
But over the course of the book, we grow to love the Blackwoods dearly, shut up in their homebound exile, trying to live a life in the wreckage—sweet Constance, rambling Uncle Julian, and especially Merricat. Utterly mysterious, Merricat lives in a universe of her own magic, with very specific rituals and protections, usually involving burying something in the yard: “On Sunday mornings I examined my safeguards, the box of silver dollars I had buried by the creek, and the doll buried in the long field, and the book nailed to the tree in the pine woods; so long as they were where I put them nothing could get in to harm us.” As Merricat takes you on a journey through her week, her daily chores and repetitions (“the pattern of our days”), we slowly come to find the truth about the Blackwoods and the nature of their tragedy.
Just like the Blackwoods’ land, there’s buried treasure on every page. Like when Merricat pretends she can’t understand the villagers’ taunts because she’s actually from the moon: “…on the moon we spoke a soft, liquid tongue, and sang in the starlight, looking down on the dead dried world.” Later, concerning her cousin Charles: “I could fasten him to a tree and keep him there until he grew into the trunk and bark grew over his mouth.” And when having to endure an annoying man’s conversation: “…I made a rule for myself: Never think anything more than once, and I put my hands quietly in my lap.”
It is also a tremendously sad book, a portrait of a family locked in its own grief, shut away hiding from the world, trapped in the day when most of the family died, reliving it over and over with Uncle Julian’s constant looping retelling of the day of the poisoning (he’s writing a book on the subject), the morbid details confirmed occasionally by Constance. They are beset on all sides by invaders: the banal and greedy Cousin Charles (“…I wanted to stamp on him after he was dead,” says Merricat, “and see him lying dead on the grass”), the cruelty of the villagers, and the meddling of do-gooder “friends” like Helen Clarke, who come well-intentioned but unwelcome for tea. Yet they build a life together, and (to them, at least) it is a happy one. “I looked at our house with all the richness of love I contained,” says Merricat, and we believe her.
So yes, my advice to you is to pick up We Have Always Lived in the Castle as your Halloween read. It might not be the scariest book in the obvious ways, but it is a sneaky one, and powerful too, and it remains to me as mysterious and wonderful as the first day I laid eyes on it. It’s also a book that refuses to explain its mysteries away. Like Merricat says, “Thursday is my most powerful day.”
Why? We may never know. But I would be wary to doubt her.