Shirley Jackson’s last full length novel is a startling and unsettling peek behind the curtains of the house at the end of the street that is always dark. The one the neighbor children taunt each other to approach after sunset. It begins with the following:
“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 dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.”
We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a simple story told very well. Shirley Jackson’s famous talent for wickedly elegant prose is on full display in the slim novel and it serves to enthrall the reader immediately. Mary Katharine (Merricat for short), her sister Constance, and wheelchair bound Uncle Julian all live in a large house on several acres separate from a small village. The story begins with Merricat taking her weekly visit to the village to purchase food. She forces herself to do this even though she must withstand the jeers and taunts of the villagers. They hate the Blackwoods because years ago the entire family was murdered with arsenic sparing only Merricat, Constance, and Uncle Julian. Since that time the women have shut themselves in the house, only occasionally taking tea with other prominent families. Life is quiet, and serene, even though it is clear Constance suffers from crippling agoraphobia.
This calm is shattered forever when cousin Charles comes calling on the women. Merricat takes an instant dislike to him – and thus so does the reader. Constance on the other hand seems to be naïve to his naked ambition to seize the Blackwood fortune. A war of wills ensues between Merricat and Charles.
Because the story is told by Merricat it is deeply unsettling even when there is no reason for the reader to feel that way. It’s clear from the start that Merricat is disturbed, quite possible insane, and an unreliable narrator. She has a tendency to randomly state properties of various poisons out loud and Constance only reply is a bemused, “Silly Merricat.” Merricat also buries household objects, nails books to trees, and refuses to say certain words believing they are protecting the house. The arrival of Charles threatens Merricat’s carefully insulated world and as her unease and fear grows so does the reader’s; both for the changes to Merricat and Constance’s carefully constructed world and for the safety of those who dare to cross the sisters.
To say more would be to spoil the power of this overlooked gem. If you are a fan of the elegantly told tales of suspense from Jackson, Ray Bradbury, Richard Mattheson, and so on you will find a lot to like. Jackson uses her own experiences with agoraphobia and being treated as an outsider to make you sympathetic to Merricat, even if you don’t entirely trust her. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a good autumn read for when the nights grow colder. It’s not a scary novel but it is unsettling. Merricat is a memorable character that you will remember long after the book ends.