We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Another fun book about family dysfunction! Woo hoo! Shirley Jackson was introduced into my life many years ago when I discovered The Haunting of Hill House, which is in my top 10 favorite books of all time and also which I blogged about awhile back – here’s the link if you’re interested. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is sort of the inverse of Hill House. Where that book was about the effect of the house upon its inhabitants, this book cleverly flips that premise and instead is about how the inhabitants itself turn the house into the place that is itself haunted.

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The two main characters, Merricat (Mary Katherine) and Constance, are sisters and the last remaining members – along with invalid Uncle Julian – of their family, all of whom perished when someone put poison in their sugar bowl, which was then sprinkled over their breakfasts. Mother, father, siblings and aunt all died, Uncle Julian was left crippled and somewhat mentally infirm, Merricat had been sent to her room, and Constance didn’t ever eat sugar.

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Constance is seen by the townsfolk as the murderer, and consequently, stays at home caring for Uncle Julian, cleaning, and cooking. Merricat wanders the property, does the grocery shopping in town to the insults and taunts of the village boys and men, collects poisonous mushrooms, and nurtures a secret loathing of everyone except her beloved sister. Her bizarre rituals of nailing books to trees, hiding silver dollars, and obsessively coming up with “safe” words that will continue to keep their little world secure, can only last for so long. When the inevitable conflict comes into their lives in the form of cousin Charles Blackwood, who arrives to see if there is any family inheritance to be had and begins a quasi-courtship of Constance, it’s the match that ignites – literally and figuratively – their lives.

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The question of who the murderer is isn’t hard to figure out, and that’s not the point of this twisted tale of psychological instability, co-dependency, and just sheer eerie creepy-ass weirdness. At one point, I actually wondered if Merricat was a ghost , due to the fact that Uncle Julian never interacts with her and at one point, refers to her as being dead. It started me wondering if Shirley Jackson was screwing with me even more than she did in Hill House. Merricat’s character is very much like Eleanor in Hill House – unreliable narrator, makes the unusual and weird somewhat normal, and even in her psychosis, she is somewhat sympathetic. And then, this little tidbit I picked up on – the similarities of the names Merricat and Merrigot! Holy shit! Merricat is the main character in this book and Merrigot is the name of the spirit haunting the Ouija board inside Hill House!! Coincidence?

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Toward the end, after all the horror and chaos, when the sisters have retreated back into their home – their castle – and the townspeople begin to tentatively make amends and gestures of reconciliation, one of the townsmen who had previously made no secret of his loathing of the family, quietly knocks on the door and leaves them food.

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It was not quite dark outside, but inside where we stood we could only see one other dimly, two white faces against the door. “Miss Constance?” he said again. “Listen.”……..”I got a chicken here.” He tapped softly on the door. “I hope you can hear me,” he said. “I got a chicken here. My wife fixed it, roasted it nice, and there’s some cookies and a pie”…………I brought it inside and locked the door while Constance took the basket from me and carried it to the kitchen. “Blueberry,” she said when I came. “Quite good, too; it’s still warm.”

Blueberry pie is one of the most quintessential comfort foods around, and this was my first time trying it out, and on Pi Day, no less!

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INGREDIENTS
2 pre-made pie crusts (yes, yes, I know. Save the hate mail.)
4 cups fresh blueberries
1 large lemon
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 egg
1/4 cup water

METHOD
In a large bowl, mix together the blueberries, juice of half the lemon, and zest from the entire lemon.

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Sprinkle over the flour, and stir to mix and ensure all the berries are covered. This will help create a thick syrup inside the pie when baking.

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Add in the sugar and the cinnamon, and mix again. Leave for about 30 minutes.

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Pre-heat the oven to 425F. Unroll one of the pie crusts and press it into a 9-inch round pie pan. Sprinkle a teaspoon of cinnamon onto the bottom crust for added flavor.

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Pour the blueberries into the pie crust, cover with the second crust, and crimp with a fork, or if you’re not hand-eye coordination-challenged like me, crimp with your fingers.

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Cut four slits across the top of the pie crust, then brush the beaten egg and water mixture on top of the crust. Bake for 20 minutes, reduce the heat to 325F and bake another 40 minutes, until the juices begin to thicken and the crust becomes golden.

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Remove and let cool, and admire it. The cooked blueberries take on a deeper hue and look like reddish-blue jewels.

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The Unburied by Charles Palliser

Charles Palliser is my favorite author after Umberto Eco, writing as he does in the most lucid, erudite, intellectual and bawdy style that sucks you into the vivid, dirty, and virulent world of Victorian, post-Industrial England. His settings are the traditional British country house or vicarage, manor or townhouse, and his Dickensian-named characters show off the best and worst qualities of humanity. For all their quiet, tea-drinking mannerisms and genteel ways of speaking, these characters are among the most inept, foolish, clueless, stupid, venal and cruelly malign in modern literature.

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In Palliser’s twist on the traditional Christmas ghost story, The Unburied, Dr. Edward Courtine comes to the small British town of Thurchester to see his old school “friend” Austin Fickling for Christmas, and to see the town’s historic church and related records. Of course, being a church, there is a ghost. And a historical mystery. And then a murder, which happens moments after Edward and Austin visit the victim. How it all turns and twists together creates a memorable murder mystery/ghost story/ Christmas tale that will make you view the holiday season in a less-than-thrilled light.

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It is very much written in an academia tone, but it moves at the pace of a whirlwind, so anyone who enjoys British literature, the books of Charles Dickens, or even history, will enjoy this book. The sense of menace creeps up on you very subtly, and there are occasions when you – ok, when I – found myself snapping at Edward’s stupidity. “Hello, the answer is RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU!!!!” I caught myself shouting before I pulled it together and reminded myself it’s just a book.

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In an early scene, Edward dines with Austin, with whom he is staying, in a horrible, freezing cold old house that is where the mystery kicks off. Austin is acting quite passively-aggressively nasty to Edward as he prepares their meal of chops and onions……not well, I would add.

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“After your long journey,” he went on, “I thought you’d like to stay in tonight, and I’ll cook our supper.”  “As you did in the old days,” I exclaimed. “Do you not recall? When we lodged at Sidney Street, we used to take turns to grill chops?”…………. Austin nodded. “Do you remember your ‘chops St. Lawrence’ as you called them? Burnt to a crisp like the poor saint.”

Pork chops with caramelized onions in a mustard-cream sauce seemed just the ticket on this chilly night, plus they are simple to make and best of all, delicious. This is the method that worked for me, based on my own recipe.

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INGREDIENTS
4 pork chops, bone out, 1/2 inch thick each
Salt and pepper to taste
1/3 cup heavy cream
1/3 cup grain Dijon mustard
4 red onions, sliced into rings
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 cup red wine

METHOD

Heat the oven to 400F.

Start with the onions. Put the olive oil and butter into a nonstick skillet and melt. Add the onions, and stir so all is glossy and covered. Sprinkle over the sugar, then let the onions cook slowly and brown underneath, stirring occasionally. This will probably take you a good 45 minutes, if not longer.

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At the 30-minute mark, pour in the red wine. Continue stirring and cooking.

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At the end of the cooking, you will have a pile of deliciously warm, brown-tinted caramelized onions that are sweet and have a marvelous soft texture.

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In the same pan heated to medium-high, add the pork chops, and season with salt and pepper. Sear each side for 5 minutes, then put the cast-iron pan with the chops into the oven and cook for 20 minutes. Remove from oven, let the chops rest, and put the pan back on the stove over a medium burner.

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Add the grain Dijon mustard and stir around. Then pour in the heavy cream and let it thicken and cook. Don’t let it curdle.

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To be quintessentially British, serve the sizzling hot chops with the Dijon-cream sauce poured over, the onions piled glossily on one side, and some classic mushy peas on the other. Sooooooo good and easy, too!

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