Last year, when I read The Haunting of Hill House, a lot of readers said that We Have Always Lived in the Castle is their favorite Shirley Jackson novel. I can see why.
This was Jackson’s final novel, published in 1962. It’s a story about two sisters, Mary Catherine (Merricat) and Constance, who live with their Uncle Julian in an old mansion just outside of a small New England town. Some years ago, the rest of the family died from poisoning after eating berries laced with arsenic, so these three survivors live alone with their memories of the family. Constance was accused of the murders, and while she was not convicted, the town still believes she poisoned her family. Constance won’t leave the house, and Uncle Julian is too frail, so it’s up to Merricat to go into town each week to pick up groceries and face the villagers.
Uncle Julian talks about the deaths incessantly. He’s writing a memoir that will tell the story of what happened, except it’s not clear that his memories are correct. At one point he tells Merricat she died in an orphanage after Constance was arrested. As a reader, you’re not quite sure what happened, except for what everyone agrees on, which is that most of the family was poisoned.
The strength of this story lies in the character of 18-year-old Merricat and her love for her older sister. It’s clear there is some mystery regarding who killed the family, and that unfolds slowly throughout the book. But this is not a book with big surprises, it’s more about character and drama.
Merricat is full of life and passion. Her only companions are her sister, her fairly senile uncle, and her beloved cat, but that’s enough. Even though she’s stuck in an old house and hated by everyone in town, she loves her life, especially the freedom to roam the Blackwood land. She’s superstitious, burying her treasures and nailing items to trees for protection. Constance does the caretaking but Merricat sees herself as protecting the family. It’s only when she fantasizes about the moon that you see that she isn’t completely satisfied with their life.
On the moon we have everything… We have cat-furred plants and horses dancing with their wings. All the locks are solid and tight, and there are no ghosts. On the moon Uncle Julian would be well and the sun would shine every day. You would wear our mother’s pearls and sing, and the sun would shine all the time.
She’s angry at the world and talks about wishing people would die, but that’s not entirely surprising, given that they are living in the house where their parents, brother, and aunt were killed. Where Constance is calm and pleasant, Merricat is full of anger.
I loved the way this book was written – there is so much symbolism throughout. Merricat and Constance carefully dust and clean their family’s possessions, as if they are preserving their former life. The house is very much a character in the story, which adds to the eerie quality of this book. It may seem creepy but it’s also beautiful – it’s not a prison for Merricat and Constance, it’s their refuge.
There had not been this many words sounded in our house for a long time, and it was going to take a while to clean them out.
Jackson really excels at building a charged atmosphere, just as she did in The Lottery and Hill House. The villagers are truly frightening, and when the Blackwoods receive a visit from one of their cousins, we start to realize how fragile Merricat’s world is. The three Blackwoods are carefully balanced on the edge of sanity – we think – and it might not take much to push one of them over the edge.
All of the village was of a piece, a time, and a style; it was as though the people needed the ugliness of the village, and fed on it.
What I loved about this book is that as eerie and disturbing as it is, it stays firmly in reality, not the paranormal. And this is what Jackson’s so good at – it’s the real world and real people that are disturbing, far more than ghosts or monsters.
I also loved the cat in this story, Jonas. But maybe that’s just me.
I read this book for the RIPX Event and the Back to the Classics Challenge.
Thanks for the rec… I’ll give it a try. I’ve only read a few things by Shirley Jackson, but, of course, The Lottery has stayed with me forever.
I think I started this years ago, but never finished it. I’ll have to dig it up or get it out of the library again. Thanks.
Great review! I read this last year and loved it. Hill House is good too, but Merricat is such a stunning character that this one is hard to beat.
Yes, Shirley Jackson knows how to tell a spooky story. I didn’t love We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but I thought it was brilliant nonetheless. And yes, real horror is always more frightening than supernatural, in my opinion.