Name: We Have Always Lived In The Castle
Author: Shirley Jackson
Genre: Psychological Thriller, Horror, Thriller, Gothic
We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson is the short 1962 thriller novel and is part of the series of short classic books that I planned to read in 2022 though I have now decided to continue this into 2023 as I had so many other books to read!.
The story is told from the perspective of Mary Katherine (shortened often to Merricat) Blackwood, who lives in a mansion with her sister Constance and their Uncle Julian. The three of them are isolated from the surrounding village, with only Merricat going into the village twice a week to buy groceries and borrow library books. She suffers from a great deal of hostility and from her perspective we learn most of the villages ostracize and despise the family and in some ways the feeling is mutual.
Over the course of the next few chapters we learn the reasoning behind the ostracizing, six years earlier there were more people who lived in the house but several people were murdered – Merricat and Constance’s parents, another uncle and a younger brother – poisoned with sugar laced with arsenic and sprinkled onto some berries. Their Uncle Julian was also poisoned but survived but was apparently never fully recovered. Constance never used to take sugar with her berries so was suspected and arrested for murder but later acquitted. The three of them experience a happy existence in their isolated mansion with little contact of the outside world.
Merricat is protective of Constance and practices sympathetic magic e.g. using rituals and magic words to keep the villagers and bad things at bay but she detects danger is looming until one day a book she nailed to a tree has fallen down. Before she can warn Constance, their estranged cousin Charles arranges a visit.
Charles befriends Constance and begins to insinuate himself into her confidence, whilst being rude to Merricat and Uncle Julian and constantly makes references to the Blackwood family safe. Merricat believes him to be a demon so tries to drive him away with various magical and non-magical means, destroying his bedroom for example.
One night before dinner, they have an argument and Constance sends Merricat to wash her hands. In her anger Charles she takes his pipe and throws it into a wastebasket filled with newspaper. Unfortunately the pipe is still smoldering and sets the basket and house on fire. Uncle Julian goes to fetch his papers and Constance and Merricat evacuate whilst Charles runs to the village to get the fire brigade. The villagers turn up and put out the fire but then their hatred boils over and en masse they start to destroy the house, smashing windows, breaking ornaments and also chasing Merricat and Constance into the woods.
During the chaos, Uncle Julian dies of an implied heart attack and Charles makes an unsuccessful attempt to steal the family safe. We also learn that Constance knew it was Merricat who poisoned the family all those years ago and she said she chose the sugar as she knew Constance would never eat any of it.
The pair of them return to the ruined mansion and make a new life for themselves in the only rooms left untouched, only the kitchen, cellar and hallway. They take the broken furniture and wood and board up the rest of the house so no one can see in. In their guilt the villagers start to leave food packages outside and Charles makes one more attempt to return to the mansion but seeing him for what he is Constance and Merricat don’t let him in and it is there that the novel concludes.
Overall the book is a really fascinating read. The first chapter is dripping with atmosphere as Merricat talks with disdain but also fear about her fellow villagers in town that she is scared of them but at the same time wants them to leave so that they can be on their own. Merricat also talks constantly about being “on the moon”, somewhere out of reach and away from the villagers judgement.
The central mystery is also intriguing as you want to find out who poisoned the family and it is drip fed to you in such a way that keeps you wanting to read on and find out what happened.
Then there is also the antagonist Charles Blackwood who is slimy and smarmy in a brilliant way and whilst Merricat can see through him as she is probably a bit more worldly-wise with her excursions to the village, the arguably more naive and sheltered Constance can’t see beyond his veneer.
The books eruption of violence at the end as the fireman and the villagers hatred boils over is horrific in how sudden it boils over and explores mob psychology in how the villagers all get involved, form the old to the young.
At the end I was also not entirely sure if I was meant to sympathize or be happy for Merricat and Constance, on the one hand they have lost nearly everything and their perfectly stable lives were disrupted by Charles. However they also seem to be happy in each others company and to shut the world away which I think in some of the recent times that we have had I think some people can relate to.
My only real criticism is that we learn who poisoned the family, our narrator Merricat but it’s never really explained why and for me I couldn’t really pick on any hints why. I was initially going to knock the book down half a star for this but I had read some interpretations online, such as this Reddit thread and it has actually made it much darker for me as it is also what is not said in the book as much as what is said. I also did pick up on a certain childishness to Merricat which is mentioned in the thread that perhaps she was abused and it stunted her growth and development, or her father’s paranoia washed over her and as she was isolated she never really grew out of that imaginative phase. Definitely something worth considering and if anyone has read this I would love to hear your thoughts down below?
For a really interesting, page turning and yet thought provoking thriller I would definitely recommend giving this book a try.