With Halloween fast approaching, I thought it would be a good time to try Shirley Jackson’s widely-acclaimed Gothic classic, We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), a book that has been sitting on my shelves for quite a while. Fortunately, it proved to be a highly appropriate read for the season – atmospheric, unsettling and at times quite magical. I think I can see why this book has earned its place in the 20th-century canon.
The novel is narrated by Mary Katherine (Merricat) Blackwood, an eighteen-year-old girl who lives with her gentle older sister, Constance, in a large isolated house on the outskirts of a village in New England. (The location is thought to be loosely based on North Bennington, Vermont, the place where Jackson lived for much of her adult life.)
The vast majority of the local townsfolk will have nothing to do with the Blackwoods as a result of an infamous incident that took place at the house some six years earlier. The girls’ parents, aunt and younger brother all died of arsenic poisoning after the deadly substance had been mixed with the sugar they consumed with their blackberries at dinner. Merricat was not present at the time as she had been sent to bed before the meal commenced. To this day the local villagers remain convinced that Constance – then aged twenty-two – administered the poison, even though she was found not guilty of the charge due to a lack of evidence. Constance did not take sugar on her berries that day, a point which counted against her at the time of the trial.
As a consequence, the Blackwood girls now live a highly secluded life with their Uncle Julian, the only other survivor of the poisoning. In failing health both mentally and physically, Julian continues to be preoccupied with the murders; as such, he spends much of his time obsessing over his notes on the case in the hope of completing a book on the subject.
In order to remain out of public view, Constance prefers to stay within the confines of the Blackwood estate, thereby leaving Merricat in the unenviable position of being the main link between the family and the outside community. Twice a week Merricat ventures into the nearby village to buy groceries and collect books from the library. Here she must run the gauntlet, steeling herself against the taunts, prejudices and slights from the villagers who consider the Blackwood sisters to be nothing less than evil demons.
“The Blackwoods always did set a fine table.” That was Mrs. Donell, speaking clearly from somewhere behind me, and someone giggled and someone else said “Shh.” I never turned; it was enough to feel them all there in back of me without looking into their flat grey faces with the hating eyes. I wish you were all dead, I thought, and longed to say it out loud. Constance said, “Never let them see that you care,” and “If you pay any attention they’ll only get worse,” and probably it was true, but I wished they were dead. (p. 8)
As a character and narrator, Merricat Blackwood is someone you are unlikely to forget in a hurry. There is a childlike quality to her highly distinctive voice; for Merricat, it is as if time has stood still since the poisonings as she speaks and behaves like a young girl, one intent on maintaining the security and stability of her make-believe world. A deeply superstitious individual at heart, Merricat believes she can protect her beloved sister and Uncle Julian from external dangers and evils by relying on magic words, strange rituals and imaginary games. She loves her sister dearly and would like nothing more than to transport Constance and Uncle Julian to the moon – a fantasy world of winged horses, magical plants and eternal sunshine, a place where they could be safe and happy.
“On the moon we have everything. Lettuce, and pumpkin pie and Amanita phalloides. We have cat-furred plants and horses dancing with their wings. All 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.” (p. 75)
Constance for her part indulges her younger sister, playing along with her escapist fantasies and dreams to her heart’s content. Nevertheless, Merricat can sense something disturbing in the air – a change is coming and not for the better. The arrival of the girls’ estranged cousin, Charles, seems set to disrupt the comfortable atmosphere in the household, a dynamic that Merricat is determined to preserve. Now that Charles’ father is dead, a man who cut off all relations with the Blackwoods at the time of the trial, Charles is free to reconnect with his relatives. However, he seems more intent on getting his hands on the Blackwoods’ money – the majority of which is locked away in a safe in the house – than demonstrating any genuine interest in the girls’ welfare.
Naturally, Merricat sees through the formidable Charles in an instant. In particular, she is dismayed by two things: firstly, Charles’ outright intolerance of Julian whom he considers a burden; and secondly, his developing friendship with Constance who, on account of her sweet nature, can only see her cousin in a positive light. Merricat makes no secret of her hostility towards Charles, a point he intuits immediately. If only Charles would go away, then everything would be alright again and the family would be safe.
Constance made shadows up and down the hall when she went to the window to look down on Uncle Julian and outside the leaves moved quickly in the sunlight. Charles had only gotten in because the magic was broken; if I could re-seal the protection around Constance and shut Charles out he would have to leave the house. Every touch he made on the house must be erased. (p. 69)
While this is a slim book, it has much to say about our suspicions, our prejudices and, perhaps most importantly of all, our treatment of people who seem strange or different from ourselves. From what I can glean about Jackson and her fiction, it would appear that this theme of being the outsider – or society’s mistreatment of the outsider – is a feature in much of her work.
The plot works very well within the framework established by the set-up. For example, we do learn the truth about the fateful poisonings, but that’s not the main point here. What really sets this novel apart from so many others is its highly distinctive style, much of which stems from the curious nature of Merricat’s voice. Childlike chants and rhymes are repeated at various points in the story, an effect that adds a strange lyrical quality to the text, albeit a rather unsettling one.
While I was expecting this to be a somewhat unnerving or chilling read (there are times when Merricat is quite disturbing), I wasn’t prepared for the dark humour, a tone that Jackson uses to great effect in certain scenes. Most of these comic moments revolve around Uncle Julian, whose ramblings about the past provide much amusement for the reader. At an early stage in the story, he puts on a great show for Mrs Wright, a rather timid but nosy woman who is fascinated by the mystery of the Blackwood poisonings. Mrs Wright has come to the Blackwoods’ house to accompany her friend, Helen Clarke, one of the few locals who will have anything to do with the Blackwood sisters. In calling on the Blackwoods on a weekly basis, Helen hopes to encourage Constance to reconnect with society, to begin to live her life again.
Much to Helen’s disapproval, Mrs Wright gets swept up by Uncle Julian as he proceeds to show her the dining room where the infamous poisonings occurred. It’s a marvellous scene, too long to quote here. Instead, I’ll finish with a short passage on the ladies’ arrival at the house, one that hints at Jackson’s eye for a humorous incident.
Constance was perfectly composed. She rose and smiled and said she was glad to see them. Because Helen Clarke was ungraceful by nature, she managed to make the simple act of moving into a room and sitting down a complex ballet for three people; before Constance had quite finished speaking Helen Clarke jostled Mrs. Wright and sent Mrs. Wright sideways like a careening croquet ball off into the far corner of the room where she sat abruptly and clearly without intention upon a small and uncomfortable chair. Helen Clarke made for the sofa where Constance sat, nearly upsetting the tea table, and although there were enough chairs in the room and another sofa, she sat uncomfortably close to Constance, who detested having anyone near her but me. “Now,” Helen Clarke said, spreading, “it’s good to see you again.” (pp. 25-6)
We Have Always Lived in the Castle is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.
I have wanted to try out Shirley Jackson’s books for a very long time. I remember reading Lottery and being so fascinated by the story. Every year I think I will pick a Jackson in October and when October arrives, it would be too busy to keep my resolution. Glad you enjoyed the read. And thanks for the heads up on the dark humour
I’ve been meaning to read this every October for the past three years – and this year I finally managed to do it! The dark humour came as a bit of a surprise to me, albeit a very welcome one as it served to balance some of the more unsettling elements. All in all, it’s a great book – a true classic.
I must put this on my read soon list. You gotta love Halloween. It brings cultures together… Would love your feedback on my new short called peekaboo
I would definitely recommend it. There’s something rather magical about this book in spite of the darker elements.
Is your short story available to view online? If so, please feel free to post a link.
It’s the one at the top called peekaboo
Thanks. I’ll take a look.
Please do. Can’t wait to hear what you thing
Lovely review as always Jacqui. I really do want to read this though I’m still a bit scared of Jackson after The Lottery! 😱
I don’t think I’ve ever read The Lottery, Karen. I seem to recall hearing bits and pieces about it though. It’s pretty disturbing I take it? That said, I would encourage you to give this a go at some point. The opening chapter is very dark and unsettling, but the tone varies as the story moves forward. I love the touches of dark humour in her writing, a most welcome addition to the mix!
It’s very dark and disturbing – but I should try to overcome my nervousness!!
I’ll definitely give The Lottery a go at some point, probably when I’m in the mood for something truly unnerving. You’re not the only person on here to have recommended it…
Great review Jacqui, as always! I really enjoyed this and totally agree that Merricat’s voice and thr humour mean the tone is both disturbing and engaging! A perfect read for this time of year :-)
Yes, such an unusual narrative voice – but, as you say, so engaging and compelling. The blend of tones really helps to set this book apart.
That’s a great final quote. Very waspish with a touch of slapstick! A scene that plays out before your eyes.
It’s a terrific sequence of scenes. Too long to go into here, but the various mannerisms and details are all spot on. Great dialogue too – Jackson clearly had a talent for these things.
Isn’t Jackson wonderful! She was introduced to me by the blogging community a couple of years ago, and is someone I don’t think I would have found otherwise
Yes, fantastic. I’m not sure I’d want to read her every day (she’s too disturbing for that), but as a pre-Hallowe’en read she’s spot on. Like you, I think I first read about her via the blogging community. Where would we be without our literary friends on here? Considerably poorer I feel…
It’s strange how a book can elude you for decades and then suddenly is everywhere you turn. I had never heard of this novel until about three months ago but in those three months this must be the third or fourth review I’ve read, all of them extremely positive. Definitely one for the tbr list, but not for this time of year. I have enough trouble with hallowe’en without making it worse with scary reading.
Ha! Jackson does seem to be enjoying a bit of a revival – and this book in particular is a favourite amongst bloggers. Funnily enough, the Backlisted team are planning to cover it on their next podcast. A Hallowe’en special, no doubt. :)
I have had my eye on this book for years.
The theme of being different or an outsider is one that has fascinated authors for a very log time. It still fascinates.
The prose in the passages that you quoted is very impressive.
She’s very strong when it comes to capturing our prejudices against people who seem unusual or a little different from the norm. You really get a sense of that from the start, and it’s something that reverberates throughout the book. I would definitely recommend you read this, Brian. It’s fascinating and very short, so even if it’s not to your tastes you won’t have spent very much time with it. :)
I read this for Halloween 2 years ago and like you I was bowled over by it . I keep on meaning to read more Jackson but haven’t got round to it yet ….my son is a huge fan of her work. I’m looking forward to the Backlisted Podcast on this . As you say Merricat is a character who stays with you.
Fantastic! It’s a great read for the season, isn’t it? Although I can understand why Cafe Society would prefer to keep it for another time if she finds Hallowe’en scary enough already.
Oddly enough, I only found out about the Backlisted podcast yesterday when they tweeted a teaser. It must be coming out next weekend to tie in with Hallowe’en. I’m looking forward to hearing what they have to say about it too!
I’ve not read this yet – as others have said above The Lottery is unnervingly good, so I shall definitely be reading this one at some point
I must read The Lottery at some point. I only know of it by hearsay/reputation, so it’s probably best if I experience it for myself. Glad to hear you were impressed. On the strength of this one, she was clearly a very accomplished writer.
I loved this book so much, so brilliantly quirky and oddly atmospheric. Your review brings it back perfectly to me.
Thank you, that’s really nice to hear. Yes, it’s quite strange and rather beguiling too – certainly at times.
Great review! It’s really put me in the mood to re-read this for Halloween. I’ll add my recommendation of ‘The Lottery’ to everyone else’s above, as well as Jackson’s other short fiction – she’s one of the very best at writing creeping unease!
Thanks! I think it would be a great re-read for Hallowe’en, perfect for a dark and creepy night. I will certainly check out The Lottery, especially given the number of recommendations I’ve received. Thank you for adding your voice to the chorus of approval – it’s reassuring to see how many people clearly rate her as a writer. :)
Great review, Jacqui. I liked this book as well, only I read it too quickly after Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, which was awesome. I should have let a little more time pass between the two books, and then I think I would have appreciated this one even more. But you are absolutely correct that Merricat’s voice stays with you long after the book is finished.
Thank you. I must take another look at your review. I know I’ve seen various posts about this book over the past few years, so many that I couldn’t quite remember who had covered it! Plus it’s always interesting to see a different perspective.
I really want to read The Haunting of Hill House at some point. It’s the one that most appeals, probably because I’m a sucker for a good ghost story especially at this time of year. I’ll take your advice though and leave it for several months. I agree, it’s often best to leave a decent amount of head space between books by the same author just to avoid fatigue. (It’s something I’ve been trying to do with my favourite writers: Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Pym, Penelope Fitzgerald and the like.)
All this talk of The Lottery makes me long to reread it. I think I will! This idea of her focussing on the outsider interests me. Last week, I visited the Bleak House art exhibit of Guillermo del Toro’s collection and collectibles and there is much talk of this in that instance too. The view from the margins, a sense of looking in. My Jackson reading was all-in-a-blur, and now I find it hard to distinguish tales, so I know it’s time to reread, and I quite enjoyed your review with that in mind. It certainly is the perfect time of year for it. Perhaps you’ll make it a traditon now? She has a number of skinny little volumes and, of course, stories….
That’s really fascinating about Guillermo del Toro and his interest in the outsider. I saw his latest film, The Shape of Water, at the London Film Festival the other week, and there’s definitely an element of the strange and unusual in that too. As you say, a sense of the marginalised looking in – an outsider who finds solace in the most unlikely situation/relationship. It’s a beautiful film, quite ravishing to look at. I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s also probably his most accessible film to date.
I certainly hope to read more of Jackson in the future, so I may well return to her next October – an annual tradition is not a bad idea. :)
I read this a few years ago and found it very entertaining but rather lightweight in terms of its themes. Still, Merricat’s voice…and that dark humor–maybe I was a little too tough on the novel or just expected too much from it or something.
It’s always good to hear another view, Richard. Life would be very dull if we all had exactly the same response to particular books or films. I thought it had interesting things to say about society’s prejudices and the ways in which people are expected to conform to established/traditional norms. Also our fear of change – Merricat’s desire to maintain the status quo is very strong. The dark humour is great, though – we’re in agreement there!
I loved this one – Merricat is one of those fictional characters who is truly unforgettable. I felt it was like reading the origin story of the witches of legend – the old women who lived in isolation feared by the community – but told from the perspective of the budding witch. I’ve read and enjoyed a few other Jackson stories since then, but this one still rates as my favourite by quite a long way.
Yes, truly unforgettable. That voice! I found it quite unnerving at first, especially in the opening chapter. Then as soon as I got into the swing of things I was up and away. A story told from the perspective of a budding witch is a great way of thinking about it. There is something beguiling about Merricat, yet deeply unsettling too. I’m sure she will stay with me for quite some time!
I recently read and reviewed The Haunting of Hill House and loved it. I think this will be my next Shirley Jackson read – Merricat in particular sounds intriguing!
She is truly unique! I am sure you’ll find this very interesting, especially given your fondness for Hill House. I’m hoping that will be my next Shirley Jackson – it does sound very tempting indeed…
Love your comment about the dark humor. I think Jackson does this masterfully, but it’s not often a topic of discussion in her works. She’s just brilliant.
Thank you. I’m glad to hear that it’s a feature of her work in general, not just this novel alone. Her comic touch is spot on in this one – that sequence of scenes with Helen Clarke and her companion is an absolute delight!
I agree, this is a tour de force. I liked The Sundial even better. And that reminds me, I also have but haven’t read Life Among The Savages, her account of bringing up children, which is said to be very funny.
Ah, I do recall reading your review of The Sundial. It was a fairly recent one (maybe two or three months ago) if my memory serves me correctly. I’ll have to take a closer look at it now that I’m on board with Jackson’s style. Life Among Savages sounds intriguing; the title alone packs quite a punch. I look forward to hearing more about it in due course…
Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
Check out the book, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson, as featured on Jacqui Wine’s Journal blog.
Many thanks for sharing my review, very much appreciated.
I was surprised by the level of humour in this book too. I was expecting the usual gothic tale of ghosts etc and was more than happy to have those expectations confounded.
Yes, it’s a unusual book in terms of tone and style, quite a difficult one to capture in a post like this as the tone changes a number of times as the story unfolds. I suspect The Haunting of Hill House might be closer to the traditional Gothic ghost story. That’s certainly the impression I get from the blurb.
Lovely review, Jacqui. It sounds like quite an atmospheric read, perfect for these darkening, windy and cold nights.
Thanks, Belinda. It’s a good one for the season. But as BookerTalk alludes to above, it doesn’t conform to the usual conventions of Gothic horror/ghost stories – it’s more varied than that. By turns strange, darkly comic, sad and unnerving. Even a little magical at times.
I have read some of Jackson’s short stories but haven’t quite convinced myself to plunge into a novel.
I don’t know if you’d take to this or not, Guy. It’s hard to tell. What did you think of her stories?
I think this is on my piles, and so is The Lottery. I just need to finally pick them up.
Some years ago, Litlove, wrote about her, and delved into the Outsider topic related to Jackson’s own life. It was very interesting.
Oh, that’s great. I’ll be really interested to see how you find Ms Jackson. I neglected to mention in my review that Merricat has a pet. Her cat, Jonas is a near-constant companion. :)
Thanks for the tip about LitLove’s piece about Jackson and the theme of being an outsider. It came through very strongly here, so I’m definitely keen to learn more about that.
I think you can find the piece when you look at her site under published work. It wasn’t written on Tales from the Reading Room, but you can track it down from there.
Weird. I just checked and it’s not available at the moment. Here’s a post about it
Oh, that’s great. Thanks so much for the link. I’ve bookmarked it to read during the week as I’m running out of time today. It seems as though she had a difficult life…
Just had a chance to look at this. What strikes me about it is the idea of writing as a form of protection, a way of Jackson shielding herself against negative/outside forces. That’s very interesting. Definitely a writer to explore further…
Pingback: My Reading List for The Classics Club | JacquiWine's Journal
18 is an interesting age for this. Childlike at 18 and you’re a bit sheltered. Childlike at 28 and you’re a bit odd. Childlike at 48…
Anyway, it sounds excellent. I rather wish I hadn’t kept the review to read as I’m trying to slim down my TBR pile but this does sound definitely one for me. Ah well.
That’s a great point. I hadn’t really thought about Merricat’s age in that way, but you’re absolutely right – any older and she would start to seem very odd indeed. It’s a brilliant book, very striking in many respects (once again, the narrative voice is distinctive and compelling.) Plus it’s short, so it won’t take you very long to whizz through. I’m pretty sure it will end up on my ‘best of’ list this year. Well, that’s if I can find enough space for everything I’d like to highlight..there around twenty contenders right now, possible more by the end of December.
Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal
Just finished “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” – really thought it was a masterpiece. I love a good unreliable narrator. One line has me bothered – “you never use sugar” – it makes me wonder if the original poisoning was an accident.
BTW – A film of this book is in the works – should be out in 2018.
Thanks for sharing.
You’re very welcome. I’m so glad you enjoyed it, a mini masterpiece indeed. Ah yes, I see what you mean about that line. It adds a touch of ambiguity, doesn’t it? The film should be very interesting to see. I can imagine it transferring very effectively to the screen, especially with Crispin Glover in the role of Uncle Julian…
Pingback: My books of the year, 2017 – favourites from a year of reading | JacquiWine's Journal
Pingback: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson | JacquiWine's Journal
Pingback: My books of the year, 2018 – favourites from a year of reading | JacquiWine's Journal
Pingback: My reading list for the Classics Club – an update | JacquiWine's Journal
Pingback: February roundup (still a bit belatedly) | Pechorin's Journal
Pingback: The Skin Chairs by Barbara Comyns | JacquiWine's Journal
Pingback: My books of the year, 2020 – part 2, the novels | JacquiWine's Journal
Pingback: Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns | JacquiWine's Journal
Pingback: Autumn reads – a few favourites from the shelves | JacquiWine's Journal
Pingback: Winter reads – a few favourites from the shelves | JacquiWine's Journal
Pingback: A Long Way from Verona by Jane Gardam | JacquiWine's Journal
Pingback: O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker | JacquiWine's Journal
Pingback: The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns | JacquiWine's Journal
Pingback: Books of the Year, 2022 – my favourite ‘older’ books from a year of reading | JacquiWine's Journal
Pingback: My favourites from a year in reading, 2022 – the books that almost made it | JacquiWine's Journal