We Have Always Lived in the Castle
by Shirley Jackson
Original Publication Date: 1962
Length: 160 pages
Obtained Via: Bought
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Merricat Blackwood lives on the family estate with her sister Constance and her uncle Julian. Not long ago there were seven Blackwoods—until a fatal dose of arsenic found its way into the sugar bowl one terrible night. Acquitted of the murders, Constance has returned home, where Merricat protects her from the curiousity and hostility of the villagers. Their days pass in happy isolation until cousin Charles appears. Only Merricat can see the danger, and she must act swiftly to keep Constance from his grasp.
Taking readers deep into a labyrinth of dark neurosis, We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a deliciously unsettling novel about a perverse, isolated, and possibly murderous family and the struggle that ensues when a cousin arrives at their estate.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a weird and unsettling book. I’m not even sure how to classify it. I’ve seen it called both horror and a mystery, but neither of those words really encompasses the story in a way that seems fitting. Until reading this book, the only other Shirley Jackson I’ve read is her famous(and infamous) short story The Lottery, which is one of the most well-known short works in American Literature. Even knowing how good Jackson was at writing a story that could chill you with human villains, I don’t think I was expecting We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Several descriptive words come to mind including “strange”, “creepy”, “weird”, but if I were to pick one word that got to the meat of this book, I would pick unsettling.
It is unsettling to watch Merricat go into town and buy supplies. It is unsettling to see paragraphs and paragraphs about Constance cooking dinner in the kitchen where almost the entire family was poisoned previously. And it is deeply unsettling to see how messed up and co-dependent the two sisters are. It’s not a “twisty” story in the sense that there’s a lot of actions, but it’s a twisty story in the struggle to figure out which characters are sane and which are not. Constance was the family member who cooked the day the entire family was poisoned, so it seems obvious she may be the poisoner–but is she? And in the end, does it really matter which sister killed off the remnants of their family in order to create their own universe?
For that’s exactly what happens in We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The Blackwood women are unlikely to take to strangers kindly. They have a couple of ladies who call on them once a week, a visit which is always met with barely repressed revulsion hiding underneath the surface, and then eventually one of their cousins comes to live at the estate for a time. That’s what once again sets them off–in a turn of events, Charles is ran out of the house and the local villagers seek some destructive avenue for their fear. And in the end, once again, Merricat and Constance create their own world in a way that is both entrancing and horrifying.
There’s so much to potentially talk about contained within this short book, but I found the journey was the better for not knowing in this instance. I’ve never read anything quite like We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and I know some of the lines will haunt me for a long time.
This strange little thing of a book got a hold of my mind and didn’t let go. . . which was all the more quietly frightening because of the type of story being told. Haunting without ever being outright scary, We Have Always Lived in the Castle is one of the best books I’ve read this year. 5/5 cupcakes.