Book Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

we have always lived in the castle

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

I am on a roll recently with reading these classic horror stories! The Haunting of Hill House (also by Jackson) and The Woman in Black by Susan Hill are classics in the genre for good damn reason, and I was hoping to continue the trend with We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

Merricat lives in crumbling Blackwood Manor with her sister, Constance, and her Uncle Julian. Once the Blackwoods were an admired and socially prominent family–until someone put arsenic in the sugar bowl. Cutting themselves off from hostile townfolk and overly nosy society ladies, the surviving sisters and their Uncle live a strange, reclusive life. Until (naturally) a distant relative with designs on the rumored family fortune comes to call. The increasing disruption of her ordered life causes Merricat to frantically try to set things right again.

As I said before, this book is a classic for a reason. There are tropes and cliches aplently, but you have to remember that this was one of the books that created those tropes. I especially love the voice that Jackson gives to Merricat, only twelve when most of her family was murdered, and growing up increasingly isolated. Now eighteen, she has developed numerous methods, both mental and magical, of keeping herself and her remaining family safe from a hostile world. There is a 1967 movie called Spiderbaby (which stars a young Sid Haig and Lon Chaney Jr.) which strongly reminds me of this book.

What I like most is how normally Merricat’s abnormalities are portrayed. She has grown up in virtual isolation, with no one but her rather insane uncle and suspected-poisoner sister to raise her. As a result, Merricat seems to perpetually exist in a limbo between adulthood and a child-like state. She is the only one in her family capable of shopping for groceries (and selecting weekly library books), but she also believes in the power of charms (such as buried marbles) to keep herself and her family safe.

This is a very short book, only 160 pages, and the perfect size for reading on some gray, drizzly afternoon (preferably with the autumn wind whistling through the thinning leaves and a hot cup of tea by your elbow). If you haven’t yet read this horror classic, I strongly encourage you to move it up to the top of your to-read list in time for Halloween.

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Book Review: The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

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The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

Another long-timer in my TBR down! Obviously after reading The Haunting of Hill House, this was the next logical step.

Arthur Kipps, up-and-coming young lawer, is sent to tend to the estate of recently deceased widow Alice Drablow. Upon arriving at the small village of Crythin Gifford, Kipps finds that the locals regarded Mrs. Drablow and her isolated manor, Eel Marsh House, with a wariness bordering on fear. Feeling rather superior to what he regards as uneducated superstition, Kipps resolves to stay overnight at Eel Marsh House, the better to complete his work efficiently. Once at the house, however, and trapped by the tide, Kipps discovers that the residents of Crythin Gifford feared the old woman and her house for good reason.

This was a truly creepy book. I’m very glad we’re into the springtime here; reading this book in the dark of winter would have been terrifying. As it was, I found myself thoroughly creeped out on more than one occasion. Hill does a great job at providing us with an unforgettable and menacing location in Eel Marsh House. The grand, ancient manor, sitting high in a desolate landscape, unreachable and inescapable during the high tide is claustrophobic and vividly unnerving. The Woman in Black herself, with her skeletally thin and bone white face, and unceasing aura of malevolence and hate is a figure out of a nightmare.

Horror fans: this is a must read! There’s an excellent reason The Woman in Black is considered a classic in the genre. Any one looking for a quick, creepy read need look no further.

Book Review: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

haunting of hill house

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

I am on a horror kick recently (I blame the Nocturnal Reader’s Box) and The Haunting of Hill House is a book that has been on my TBR forever! I am a bit ashamed to admit I’ve seen The Haunting (you’re in trouble when even Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta Jones can’t save a movie), but I’ve never read the book that inspired it! Fortunately, now that I’ve gotten a bit of breathing room between books I’ve pledged to review, I can dedicate some of my time to working through my personal TBR.

Eleanor Vance, a lonely young woman recently cast adrift by the death of her elderly mother, is invited by researcher Dr. John Montague to spend a summer at notoriously haunted Hill House in an attempt to scientifically study paranormal phenomena. Once at the house, she is joined by one of its heirs- ne’er-do-well Luke Sanderson, and Theodora, an artist and another potential “sensitive.” Once at the house, strange and mysterious incidents begin to pile up. Disconcertingly, these incidents seem more and more to focus upon Eleanor.

Hill House is considered THE classic haunted house book, and for damned good reason. Though less than 200 pages long, Jackson was able to pack an amazing amount of creepiness within a small space. The buildup begins with Eleanor’s trip to the infamous house itself. Jackson paints a picture of a rather surreal journey both through the decaying countryside and through Eleanor’s vivid imagination. Once we arrive at Hill House itself, the air of unease and dread grows. The house, built to be slightly off-square by it’s eccentric owner, seems to echo Eleanor’s own slightly off-kilter nature. As events in the house continue to escalate, the reader is left to wonder if what is happening is true supernatural phenomena, whether one of the other people in the house has targeted Eleanor, or whether Eleanor herself is the source of the disturbances. We like Eleanor, we sympathize with her, but at the same time we feel as though she is not entirely trustworthy as a narrator.

Any one who is a fan of horror and/or suspense should read this book. Let us keep in mind that most of the terror is left out of view; there are no jump scares or flying body parts here. but the book works subtly on the mind, giving the reader’s own imagination free rein. I expect the final conclusions drawn about what actually happened at Hill House will be as varied as the readers themselves.

 

Book Review: New Boy by Tracy Chevalier

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New Boy by Tracy Chevalier

This is one of the Hogarth Shakespeare series; the Bard’s classic plays reimagined by modern-day authors. Last year I got to read Hag-Seed, Margaret Atwood’s retelling of The Tempest. Now, I’m moving on to Othello as envisioned by Tracy Chevalier.

Chevalier sets her retelling in 1970s Washington DC. The era, with its incendiary post-civil rights racial tensions, provides a brilliant backdrop for a story that orbits intimately around Othello’s otherness (both his race and, presumably, his religion).

Disconcertingly, Chevalier has set her story in an elementary school. The major players are now sixth graders; the horror and the tragedy of the plot enacted by eleven year olds. A bold choice, but one that ultimately plays out well. The petty intrigues and backstabbing of playground rivalries seem to need only a small push to spiral into terminal misunderstanding and violence.

The story, set over a single school day, begins with Osei, also called O, the son of a Ghanaian diplomat starting his first day at a new school, and the only black student enrolled. He quickly befriends Daniella (also called Dee), one of the most popular girls in school, and the two hit it off almost instantly. Unfortunately, Osei’s unlikely friendship with Dee, and his acceptance by Casper, the most popular boy at the school, inspire bully Ian to concoct a malicious plot to put the “uppity” Osei in his rightful place.

New Boy is a powerful retelling of a play that is in itself timeless. Othello continues to resonate with audiences today because the attitudes of racism, resentment, and revenge are depressingly familiar to us all. The child-like cruelty of the elementary students in New Boy is at once horrifying and familiar. The reinforcement of this cruelty by the adults in the picture (who, as one character points out, “should know better”) provides further commentary on the pervasiveness of racism and the continuous effort at education and cultural exploration needed to help combat it. By setting the story in the 1970s, Chevalier gives us some temporal space from such abominable ideas, but recent events should quickly make it obvious that we have not come nearly as far as we would like to think.

In all, this is a great modern retelling of a Shakespeare classic (is that redundant? I think it may be). Othello is an important story, and New Boy will make it more accessible for those who don’t have the time or inclination to wade through the Bard’s archaic prose.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Mr. Rochester by Sarah Shoemaker


Mr. Rochester by Sarah Shoemaker

You might know this by now, but I’m a huge Jane Eyre fan. I will devour everything and anything related to the book. So when I saw that a book from Mr. Rochester’s point of view was coming out, I jumped on the opportunity like one of my dogs on an errant piece of cheese.

Mr. Rochester did not disappoint. The story begins with young Edward Fairfax Rochester as an unloved second son, torn from Thornfield Hall by an indifferent father to begin his education. The book follows Mr. Rochester though his teen years (banished from his father and older brother to a mill to learn to run a business), through his days in Jamaica (where he meets the mysterious and beautiful Bertha Mason), to his dissipation on the continent (where we meet the opera singer, Celine), and finally, to his fateful journey back to Thornfield where he meets a kind young governess after his horse slips on the ice.

Shoemaker has done a great job of adhering to the tone of the original book; the prose mimics Bronte’s style incredibly well. Shoemaker also manages to bring a fresh feeling to the classic book, while at the same time staying true to the original, no mean feat. In this regard, the book reminds me of Phantom by Susan Kay, another novel which expanded on a well-known story, but remained undiminished even next to the original.

While you do not technically have to read Jane Eyre before reading Mr. Rochester, I would certainly recommend that you read Jane Eyre first. Fans of Jane Eyre should definitely read this book, as should anyone with a love of classic and/or British literature.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: After Alice by Gregory Maguire

After Alice Gregory Maguire

 

After Alice by Gregory Maguire

The summer day waxes hot in Oxford and young Alice has gone missing. But enough about her. Right now we’re concerned with the plights of Lydia, Alice’s older sister, Ada, the neighbor girl, and Miss Armstrong, Ada’s governess.

The book opens with the squalling of an infant: Ada’s younger brother, and a sudden, pressing need to be out of the house. Running out ahead of her governess, young Ada heads down to see her friend Alice. Encountering Alice’s sister, Lydia, on the road, she is directed to Alice’s regular haunt. Unfortunately for Ada, who requires an iron brace to walk straight, she encounters a rabbit hole instead and promptly tumbles down.

Miss Armstrong is left to search after her charge, becoming more and more worried when it seems that Alice may be missing as well. Dragging a reluctant Lydia along in the search, she is desperate to find the girls before Ada’s or Alice’s fathers learn the girls have gone. Ada, meanwhile, must navigate Wonderland and its strange denizens to find both Alice and her way home.

All this sounds a bit more promising in summary that it was in reality. I’m a fan of Gregory Maguire, Wicked was a fantastic book, and added a huge amount to L. Frank Baum’s classic. We don’t get that same gift here with After Alice. There are no huge revelations about any Wonderland favorites, nor is the real world plot very compelling. Following Ada into Wonderland, we meet many of the same folks that Alice did, but we gain nothing new in the encounter. After a bit, it seems as though we’re ticking off boxes, making sure we’ve said hello to everyone, but not really speaking to them.

Back in Oxford, we follow Lydia and Miss Armstrong as they search for Ada and Alice. This story line largely seems to go nowhere. The two women search halfheartedly, annoy one another, and compete for a gentleman’s attention. Lydia is sharp where Miss Armstrong is a bit insipid, but neither seems very engaged in finding their missing charges, which is the part I had been keen to explore: what pandemonium might erupt in Oxford when not one, but two children go missing? The answer seems to be very, very, very little.

In all, I feel like this is not Maguire’s best work. I’d recommend this for hardcore Maguire fans, and those looking for even a little bit more about Alice and her world. For the more casual reader: you won’t hate this book, but it left little impression on me.

A copy of this book was provided via Goodreads Givaways in exchange for an honest review. After Alice is currently available for purchase.