Thursday, April 05, 2012

Classics Challenge: We Have Always Lived in the Castle

I've been meaning to write about Shirley Jackson's 20th century classic, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, for a couple of months now, and this month's topic around book covers from November's Autumn's Classic Challenge is all the incentive I needed.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a horror story, not a genre I read much, but it's gotten such rave reviews from fellow bloggers whose opinions I trust that I had to give it a try.

And it's cover? Awesome.

At least I think the cover of the Penguin Classics edition I have is awesome. It's sort of a cross between an Edward Gorey illustration for PBS Mystery and the woodcut illustrations of Fritz Eichenberg that grace my favorite editions of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. It is perfect for this modern gothic tale, and absolutely captures the essence and themes of the novel. The illustrator is Thomas Ott, and I don't think Penguin could have picked a better artist to do the cover of this oh so creepy book.

Front and center we have an image of the novel's extremely unreliable narrator, Merricat, a young teenaged girl, holding her cat and facing the world grimly. Her big staring eyes convey her innocence, vulnerability, and that underlying psychosis she dances around so deftly.

Behind her is her sister Constance, which is apt because throughout the story Merricat continually conveys the impression that she is shielding Constance from the world. However, it's not clear from the cover whether Constance is hiding behind Merricat or is supporting her. Her hands on Merricat's shoulders have a maternal feel that makes the cover reflect the ambiguities of the story Merricat tells and the reality that the reader eventually pieces together.

Behind Merricat and Constance, in the background, are the villagers who shun them after the "accident" that kills the rest of their family and who eventually storm their castle. True to the book, they display a range of emotions from shock and horror to mockery or what might even be interpreted as friendliness.

To be honest, I didn't love the book. I'm glad I read it, and I found it morbidly interesting and the unreliability of the narrator to be fascinating, but I felt a great sense of relief when I finished it and could put it safely back on the shelf. It wasn't a comfortable read, but I admire Jackson's writing tremendously. She really is the queen of modern gothic--her short story, The Lottery, is absolutely chilling and is a masterpiece of American fiction as is We Have Always Lived in the Castle.


  1. What a wonderful analysis of the cover image. My copy, an older Penguin edition, has a much less interesting cover.

  2. I have this version too and love the cover of this book. I think it really does reflect the story and its disturbed and damaged characters. It's a weird, macabre tale, portraying fear, resentment, hostility and persecution.

    The back cover is even darker!

  3. This sounds intriguing - I've read Jackson's "The Lottery" and absolutely loved it. I didn't exactly enjoy it, but I like dark stories that give readers chills, so I might check out this novel.

    Btw, I've tagged you on my blog. Don't know if you've been tagged before in this one, but hope you participate :) You can find the questions here:

  4. Jane, I read so many rave reviews about this one, that by the time I finished it, I was a bit disappointed as well. Might have liked it better in high school??? LOL

  5. The cover definitley conveys a gothic feel, something about the play of light and shadows on the faces in the background-- their expressions help too.

    The narrartor looks unreliable and the way her sister holds her as though she's fearful of what her sister would do if let loose.

    I hadn't heard of Shirley Jackson, horror isn't my genre either.

    Thanks for your post, Jane! :)

  6. That really is a terrific cover. I recently read this one and thought the cover was perfect for the story.

  7. The art work for the cover is great, and very creepy. That, and the title would make me pick it up.

  8. I read this book a long time ago, and have been meaning to pick up a copy of this new Penguin version. I enjoyed it when I did read it (well over 10 years ago), though it is like all of Jackson's fiction, dark and gothic. It's a creepy story, isn't it? I like it, but it's scary at the same time, like no one is who they appear to be. Unsettling. I do love Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, which I consider one of the best haunted house books ever written. Have you read that?

  9. What a beautifully creepy cover. I would have picked it up just for that. Your analysis was superb, and even though you did not enjoy it, your description has made me want to read it.

    My April book(s) were Louisa May Alcott's Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom. You can see it at Chronicles of a Book Evangelist.