It’s time for this season’s round of Halloween-y books, as promised.
The weather as of late has actually helped me accept the realities of fall. It was cold and dark a few weeks, which I felt was too soon, and then the hurricanes blew up all kinds of hot air, which while I have enjoyed one more round of wearing summer dresses, I want it to be cool and Fall like. I have apples I picked with my son that it’s not cool enough to bake into my favorite apple pie recipe on Pinterest. Soccer games and practices are downright hot to sit in.
I have still been marking this wonky weather season with books about my favorite topics of magic and a little scary and witches and dark. Even if it doesn’t feel right out to bake a pie.
When I was little I thought that living in a castle was the ultimate high life and there was a point when at least the Western world would have been in agreement with me on this. Top of the food chain.
And indeed the first book I talk about here is that kind of castle mentality where it’s mostly money and magic and enchantment and where you want to be if you can get there. All very British.
But then I grew up and realized the realities of castles. Even when they were the luxury they were still cold and drafty, despite being spacious and being able to house many nobles at a time. Any modern story of people living in castles before they were given up on are stories that do not renew my desire to live in a castle. They get too expensive to maintain, built in a time with different society structure, and are altogether impractical, even if people want to live on in them like they are maintaining their stately families of old. There may be one more castle book that feeds some childlike wonder, but even the adults in that one can’t take care of the rambling thing.
The Enchanted Castle, Edith Nesbit
These are miniature British adults looking for and finding adventure on a holiday meant for them to spend time together away from their respective schools. No adults who are truly in charge or supervising are part of this adventure where they find a castle with a little girl who lives there as a relative of the help and get themselves into debacles with magic. This book is very much about a magic ring, almost more than it is about the actual castle. And the castle is rambling and beautiful but it is not old and dark and gloomy. The creepier parts come through when the magic goes all wrong and gets away from the control of the children and they are trying to figure out how to make things right again. The castle is enchanted, certain other magical things happen there as well, but it is mostly light and harmless magic. Only maybe a tiny shade of Halloween-y. But a good read for kids and a little fun.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson
I see this one all over the internets as something really great. I had to read Wikipedia halfway through to orient myself to what was really supposed to be going on in this story. I couldn’t decide if the narrator was supposed to be a child, or a little crazy. or dead. Or something. It starts out a little creepy in the beginning with the agoraphobic sister and the very childlike narrator and the not immediately clear reasons why they are shunned by the town. It gets creepier as the story is revealed and why there is the degree to being shut in, and then ending with how the women subsist in the end. And I really wanted to punch the interloping cousin who tries to take over the estate. I was kind of hoping we would find out some of the family that was talking and participating in the story was actually a ghost.
I may have reached the conclusion that Shirley Jackson is underwhelming, and it’s not just because she is subtle. I like Algernon Blackwood’s subtle horror quite a bit. It stirs up fear inside me without having to be heavy handed. I read The Lottery in high school and then The Haunting of Hill House last year for my last round of seasonal Halloween reads and maybe I liked them better. I don’t know. I just expected more from this one. I have now done all her most popular stuff, maybe I would like something lesser known even more. I am open to others commenting on what I may have missed to help me see what others really like in this one.
I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith
This one is lighter than Shirley Jackson, but it has its darker bits too. I was anxious to read another Dodie Smith after 101 Dalmatians and how blatantly misogynistic that one was. This one, thankfully, was much better on that count. A family is struggling in genteel poverty in this coming of age story of a girl who is trying to help pull her family back together, her sister make a good marriage with the people who own the castle, and get her father back on track with writing. It is stressful with how poor they are but it is still a charming and enjoyable book.
This book is not misogynistic but it reminds me how absolutely powerless women in genteel poverty were. They are criticized for being ‘gold diggers’ but they don’t have a way of elevating themselves while keeping within their social class. The only way up if their father is not taking care of them is to find a husband to do so. She also finds her feelings about men changing and becoming more confusing. I think the real strength of this novel is the likability of the narrator. She is funny and smart, honest, and sweet. She tries to make things okay for everyone but does not rush into her own happiness, but rather tries to be measured and planful at the end, not the heedless girl that she starts off with in the beginning. Again, not as Halloween-y, but the castle is a major player of this story.
So, this was more of a gentle slide into the Halloween books season. Next week is demons, so if you want something scarier, stay tuned!