we have always lived in the castle

From Howl’s moving castle to Merricat’s family manor with a homicidal history…

Shirley Jackson’s 1962 gothic classic We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a little cracker of a book. I chose it from Avid Reader’s ‘Classic Cult Fiction’ selection. I didn’t really know what to expect but I was drawn in by the description on the back cover: “In her final, greatest novel, Shirley Jackson draws us into a dark, unsettling world of family rivalries, suspense and exquisite black comedy.”

I was down for a bit of ‘Fargo’ style storyline, but while I agree with the ‘unsettling’ part, I’m not sure there was a great deal of comedy or suspense.

Here’s a basic rundown of We Have Always Lived in the Castle:

The story is told through the eyes of Mary Katherine ‘Merricat’ Blackwood, a botany loving eighteen-year-old with a serious case of what we first think is magical-delusion meets OCD. When her normal weekly routine is interrupted, she says: “I had nothing to do. I wondered about going down to the creek, but I had no reason to suppose that the creek would even be there, since I never visited it on Tuesday mornings” (p. 75).

The Blackwoods own a great deal of Vermont, and the family has always been hated by the villagers, although it’s never explained why. Vermont is grey and sour and unfriendly. Merricat says that “whatever planned to be colorful [sic] lost its heart quickly in the village” (p. 6).

Their estate used to be a thoroughfare for the villagers, but has been gated and fenced for a long time now. The Blackwoods only ever socialise superficially (tea in the parlour style), and with a limited number of high-brow families who live outside of the main drag.

Six years prior to the novel’s present-day, the eldest sister Constance Blackwood* is acquitted of murdering the bulk of the family. Her parents, younger brother and aunt die of poisoning; arsenic in the sugared blackberries. Merricat had been sent to her room, so she wasn’t at the scene of the crime, and Uncle Julian survives the poisoning, but is rendered invalid.

These three remaining Blackwoods are joined in the house by long-estranged cousin Charles at one stage, presumably he’s after family money. I found his character to be a lot of nothing to be honest, and he’s soon run out by Merricat.

The sisters become less and less trusting of people until they transform into agoraphobic living-ghosts; an urban legend of Vermont.

“The ladies don’t like little boys,” the second woman said; she was one of the bad ones; I could see her mouth from the side and it was the mouth of a snake.

“What would they do to me?”

“They’d hold you down and make you eat candy full of poison; I heard that dozens of bad little boys have gone too near that house and never been seen again.” (p. 141)

And that’s pretty much the plot, which, if you’re following along here, isn’t much of a story.

It doesn’t take the reader long to assume the correct murderer, because Jackson isn’t subtle, and neither is her protagonist. Here’s a sneak-peek into Merricat’s thoughts about her cousin Charles:

“I was thinking of Charles. I could turn him into a fly and drop him into a spider’s web and watch him tangled and helpless and struggling, shut into the body of a dying buzzing fly; I could wish him dead until he died. I could fasten him to a tree and keep him there until he grew into the trunk and bark grew over his mouth. I could bury him in the hole where my box of silver dollars had been so sage until he came; if he was under the ground I could walk over him stamping my feet” (p. 89).

The book didn’t really deliver on the ‘thrill,’ but the psychological aspect is interesting. This mostly plays out in the character-development of Merricat. As more is revealed, it becomes obvious that she is a sociopath. She is lacking in any sort of remorse or empathy, and premeditates extreme ways to get her life back to how she wants it.

Jackson is a little too good at forming this character. I wasn’t particularly surprised (but saddened) to discover that she died shortly after We Have Always Lived in the Castle was published – the coroner ruled amphetamine addiction, alcoholism and morbid obesity. In her final months, she suffered from agoraphobia so intensely that she didn’t leave her room. Perhaps a case of art imitating life?

Read this book if you can get a copy for free and have a spare few hours (which you most likely do right now, let’s be honest). But I wouldn’t bother if you’re in the mood for plot-twists, jump-scares or head-scratchers. Jackson is no Stephen King.

I give We Have Always Lived in the Castle 3.5 out of 5 death cap mushrooms.

I bought my copy from here.

*Does this name sound familiar? Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina borrowed it for one of their characters, Lady Constance Blackwood.

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