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.