We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Horror | Classics | Gothic
Published by Penguin
Released September 21st, 1962
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Shirley Jackson is one of those authors whose books I’ve had on my TBR list for years, but never got around to reading. Which is odd, because I adore Gothic horror. Jackson is also the creator of the popular horror novel The Haunting of Hill House, as well as plenty of other similar books.
I had grand plans for my Halloween TBR, but all that ended up not happening when my bipolar disorder took a turn towards a depressive episode and we had to move at the end of the month. I was determined, however, to at least read some spooky books, and since We Have Always Lived in the Castle is relatively short, under 150 pages, it was a perfect choice.
I feel the need to preface this review by explaining something about my personality: I have very macabre fascinations and a dark sense of humor. I tend to be attracted to books and characters that have dark or nefarious qualities to them.
That personality trait hopefully explains why I was hooked on this book by the end of the first paragraph:
“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I disklike watching myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.”
What a way to start a novel!
The book is about two sisters, Mary Katherine and Constance, who live in their large ancestral home with their Uncle Julian. The rest of their family died many years previously, and Constance stood trial for poisoning them but was eventually acquitted.
After the death of their family, Constance stopped leaving the house and the townspeople actively started to dislike the remaining members of the Blackwood family, even going so far as to create a macabre song to remind them of the murders:
“Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!”
The small family keeps to themselves until things begin to change with the arrival of their cousin Charles. Eventually, there’s a haunting confrontation between the sisters and the townsfolk.
One of the most noticeable themes of this novel is agoraphobia, which is a phobia in which a person cannot leave their home and avoids any sort of uncomfortable situation. While Mary Katerine, nicknamed “Merricat,” heads into the town twice a week in order to pick up groceries and library books, Constance hasn’t left the house since the trial for the murder of her family. The sisters are terrified of outsiders and live in a fenced-off world all their own.
I’m not sure if any Stanley Kubrick fans are going to be reading this, but I was reminded of his films while reading this novel. Not due to the story being at all similar to any of the fantastic films he directed, but because of the anti-people cynicism that pervades the entire story.
Many of Kubrick’s films show the darker side of humanity, such as my favorite of his, Full Metal Jacket. So many writers and artists strive to show the good of humanity, where people come together in times of need, overcoming prejudices and fears to embrace kindness and cooperation. Like Kubrick’s films, however, Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle displays how terrible people can be. The townspeople constantly heckle Merricat when she’s in the town on her trips to the grocery store, and there’s a particular scene towards the end of the novel where we are shown just how horrible people can be, especially in a mob setting. At its core, this novel shows how communities ostracize people deemed to be “other” or outsiders, and how it affects those targeted.
In more modern times, fiction has embraced mental illness, showing the struggles of sufferers and focusing on how people overcome these sometimes debilitating conditions to live the lives they desire. This novel, however, shows two sisters who live without treating their mental illnesses, and how their conditions are exacerbated by a hateful community and a lack of resources. It was fascinating to see this other side of mental illness displayed in a novel.
I read this book in less than 24 hours, and I know that this is going to become not only one of my favorite books of all time but one that I’ll read over and over again. The mystery and atmosphere of the novel combined with its themes and characters left such an impact on me that I’ve been almost constantly thinking about it since finishing it. It’s also inspired me to start reading her other works, which I’ve already reserved at my library.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle was Shirley Jackson’s final published work before her death three years later in 1965. It’s a masterpiece of a novel to go out on, and a book that will stick around for decades to come.
Have you read We Have Always Lived in the Castle or any of Shirley Jackson’s other works? What were your thoughts? Let me know in the comments!
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