Tuesday, November 8, 2022

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Source of book: Borrowed from the library


I decided to pick up a book for Spooky Season in addition to our book club book. Back in 2019, our club read The Haunting of Hill House, which I thought was excellent. I put a couple of other Shirley Jackson books on my reading list, and decided to go with this one. 


Having now read two Jackson books, I have to say that I think she is an underrated author. She was dismissed by the (mostly male) literary establishment of her day, in part because she wrote in a genre that was out of style. Probably also in part because she didn’t fit the picture of what they thought an author should be like. She was also a bit prickly, which is excused in male authors, but rarely in female ones. 


Her own life was interesting, and it definitely influenced her books, including this one. She met her husband in college, married him, and had four children. He taught at a local college, while she wrote and handled all of the domestic duties. That wasn’t the only double standard she had to put up with. Her husband continuously cheated on her, with his students, and insisted on controlling the money - even though she out-earned him with her writing. You can see this frustration with her domestic situation come out in her books, and definitely in We Have Always Lived in the Castle. She did love her children, and they even enjoyed her portrayals of them in her writing, apparently. 


We Have Always Lived in the Castle is not a supernatural story. It is gothic horror in its own way, but there are no real ghosts or unexplained events at all. It is a freaky story, and one that should creep anyone out. 

The delightfully creepy cover on the Penguin edition.  

The opening introduces the narrator. 


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 my family is dead.


This reference to toxins is no accident. Mary Katherine, aka Merricat, has a fascination with poisons. Indeed, the rest of her family is dead because they were all poisoned with arsenic in the sugar bowl. Constance was accused and tried for the crime, but was acquitted. So now, she and Merricat and their invalid uncle Julian live together alone in the decrepit family mansion. 


The Blackwoods apparently were an old aristocratic family. Somewhere in the past, they failed to also inherit the property of another aristocratic family they were related to by marriage, which seems vaguely connected to the fact that nearly everyone else in town hated them, even before the ghastly murders. 

The funerals and the trial done, the three of them have settled down into a routine of sorts. Until it is disturbed by the arrival of Cousin Charles, who is clearly after the money he thinks is stashed in the safe. Things go really wrong from there on, but I really don’t want to spoil anything else. 


I do want to note that despite Merricat’s age, she is written as if she were a prepubescent girl, not a woman. Constance serves as a mother figure, although she isn’t that much older. She takes care of all of the domestic duties, and seems overprotective of Merricat. Who, to be fair, acts out in ways that do not make her safe to herself or others. 


Apparently, I was not the first one to wonder about a potential sexual subtext to the situation. Whatever her age, Merricat clings to childhood. The arrival of a man close in age to Constance suggests a threat that is greater than his mere greed - Merricat describes him as being a ghost, of being dead, even though he is clearly living. 


Another theme in the book is that of unjust persecution and arbitrary hatred in a small New England town. Jackson apparently felt she was mistreated herself, being reduced to the role of a “faculty wife” despite being a successful author. The way she describes this hatred, which culminates in a near lynching, feels all too plausible. In the book, of course, it isn’t just a simple prejudice, as clearly something has gone wrong. Most of the family is dead from a murder, and yet nobody was convicted of the crime. 


In contrast to most of the townspeople, there are a few who make the effort to be kind, even though it costs them some status. Later, it appears others have had a change of heart, but exactly who is left ambiguous. Indeed, much goes unsaid in this book, although plenty can be understood if you read carefully. 


The book is short, essentially a novella, but is tightly written. Jackson’s skill as a writer is apparent throughout, and the gradual build to the apotheosis is superbly done. 


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