Charles Petzold

"We Have Always Lived in the Castle"

April 7, 2007
Roscoe, N.Y.

It's fun to read Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery" trying to imagine never having read it before — to be, perhaps, one of those innocent readers of that 1948 issue of The New Yorker in which the story first appeared, and to be smiling at this curious tale right up until the final paragraph.

Of course, Shirley Jackson wrote much more than just "The Lottery," and I recently picked up a copy of her last completed novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Originally published in 1962, the novel was republished last year in an attractive Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition with appropriately creepy cover art by Swiss cartoonist Thomas Ott and an introduction by novelist Jonathan Lethem.

As Lethem notes in his introduction, We Have Always Lived in the Castle seems to take place in the same village as "The Lottery." The short (146 page) novel is narrated by Mary Katherine Blackwood, known as Merricat, who lives with her older sister Constance and her Uncle Julian in the large Blackwood family mansion. Merricat is 18 years old but she seems a lot younger — maybe 12 or so. Oddly enough, that was Merricat's age on the day the terrible tragedy occurred. And now their mother and father are gone, and Constance is a recluse, and Uncle Julian is losing his mind writing a history of that awful day, and the other kids in the village taunt them with rhymes:

Of course, kids always fear what they don't understand.

But perhaps in this case their fear is entirely justified....