We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

After reading The Haunting of Hill House, I was keen to read more Shirley Jackson and spook myself silly. We Have Always Lived in the Castle was an obvious choice, so well lauded as it is, and in the week running up to Hallowe’en I entered the rather disturbing, unsettling world of the Blackwoods. As in The Haunting of Hill House, the action of the novel is based within the domestic setting of a home, but rather than the house being a place of evil and discomfort, from which people are anxious to leave, in We Have Always Lived in the Castle, the home represents a refuge from the hostile outside world that its inhabitants rarely venture from, which I found an interesting point of contrast.

The novel is told through the eyes of Mary Katherine, or ‘Merricat’, an eighteen year old girl who lives in the isolated Blackwood house with her older sister Constance and their wheelchair bound, mentally deteriorating Uncle Julian. We are told right from the start that the local villagers dislike and distrust the Blackwoods, and as far as Merricat is concerned, the feeling is mutual. She only ventures out once a week to go to the library and pick up groceries, and this journey is described as an ordeal that results in abuse and much ill will on both sides. As childlike as Merricat’s voice is, the disturbing undertones of violence and hatred that darken her thoughts are immediately noticeable. Initially easy to pass off as the rants of a sullen teenager feeling ostracized and bullied by others for being an outsider, soon these pronouncements of wishing everyone dead and her desire to trample on their bodies takes on a sinister edge when we swiftly learn that Merricat’s parents, brother and aunt were killed through arsenic poisoning six years earlier. This is the source of the villager’s hatred; Merricat’s sister Constance is widely believed to have murdered her family members, though she was not convicted of the crime, and this perceived evil latent in the Blackwood house, which was already the brunt of hatred because of Merricat’s wealthy landowning parents’ decision to block their land off, has turned the world outside against its inhabitants.

However, once we are introduced to Constance, the villagers’ hatred becomes incomprehensible. Beautiful, gentle, patient and caring, Constance unflaggingly caters to her disabled Uncle’s every need and is a loving and nurturing home maker, cooking, cleaning, sewing, gardening and generally making the now parentless house a home for her beloved little sister. She indulges Merricat’s strange habits and is sympathetic to her rages, thinks nothing of her own needs, and is terrified of leaving the house for fear of reprisal. There appears to be no trace of evil or ill will in her character whatsoever, and this almost unbelievable goodness and motherly warmth left me wondering whether Constance’s behaviour was a front for an unpredictable, possibly bi polar mind, or genuine, and therefore an indication that there was another murderer in the house. Considering the latter option, Merricat’s voice became increasingly disturbing, and her fierce protectiveness of Constance (though really, who is protecting who?), her strange rituals and superstitions, hatred of anyone who intrudes on her and Constance’s relationship, and fear of change made me begin to suspect Merricat’s sanity and her capabilities. When Charles, a Blackwood cousin after the family fortune that is hidden in the house’s safe, arrives, and threatens the isolated yet comfortable existence Constance has fashioned for them all, Merricat’s behaviour and thoughts become increasingly violent, and before long it becomes clear what really happened on the night of the poisoning, and how far unconditional love between sisters can be willing to go…

It’s difficult to talk about this too much without completely ruining the plot, so I apologise if I have already said too much. Shirley Jackson creates a wonderfully sinister, claustrophobic and otherworldly atmosphere in this novel of mental disturbance, unconditional love, sacrifice and the power of fear. It was a disturbing read, and the slow drip-drip-drip of ever more worrying information from the erratic, bizarre, deluded and often vitriolic Merricat’s mouth builds a tension and a sense of foreboding that had me on tenterhooks throughout. Shirley Jackson’s exploration of the mob mentality, as well as the delusional nature of mental illness, and the self sacrifical blindness of unconditional love, are all very thought provoking, and take this to depths far beyond a conventional ‘psychological thriller’. I can highly recommend it, and I preferred it to The Haunting of Hill House, largely because its atmosphere was richer, and the plot thicker. Pick it up if you can; you won’t regret it!

39 comments

  1. I liked this book a lot when I read it but wasnt quite as bowled over with it as I would have liked, maybe its because I had heard it was such a masterpiece. I think when that happens you can just expect too much… not that I am saying you did as you seemed to love it.

    I am slightly disappointed that you mention you loved it more than The Haunting of Hill House as I have been hoping thats amazing… maybe it will be for me as I know less about it.

    Great book thoughts as ever!

    1. I know what you mean, Simon – sometimes when a book is overhyped it can’t help but be a disappointment. I’m sorry you didn’t love it – you may like The Haunting of Hill House better because you know less about it.

  2. I bought this only last week and so I won’t read your review yet because I want to come it fresh … Did you ever read that short story of hers, The Lottery?

    1. What a coincidence, Mary! I’m sure you’ll love it – it will suit your wicked side.😉 I did! Shocking and appalling and sadly still relevant to our society today. I want to read more of her short stories, actually.

  3. I have tried to get this book for over an year now. The title intrigued me at the beginning and the reviews have been so positive that its a must read for me now!

    1. What an honour, Laura! You will love this, I’m sure. It’s a very different read and one that will really set you thinking. I found it a very interesting change to my usual fare.

  4. I read the Haunting of Hill House years ago and liked it very much, but We Have Always Lived in The Castle sounds even better. It intrigues me. You do such a good job of enticing me to read this. It sounds like the plot twists and turns like a mountain stream encouraging one to peek around the next curve. This goes on my wish list. Thanks again for your review.

    1. I think it is better, Janet – there is a much more sinister aspect to it that I found more intriguing and disturbing than the story of Eleanor’s mental state in Hill House. I’m so glad you enjoyed the review, thank you! I hope you manage to find a copy soon.

  5. Great review, Rachel! I love your build-up of the book without giving too much away and your words “. . . the slow drip-drip-drip of ever more worrying information from the erratic, bizarre, deluded and often vitriolic Merricat’s mouth builds a tension and a sense of foreboding that had me on tenterhooks throughout.” are enough to give me a fright without reading the book. See me now? I’m already hovering under the covers, with a flashlight, of course, to keep reading. Thank you for another fine review.

    1. Thanks Penny! I’m sorry I frightened you – if my review gave you shivers, the book will do even worse! I think you’d find it a thought provoking read – check it out of the library and see – but read it in the daytime!

  6. I have yet to get around to any of Shirley Jackson’s horror novels (although I have read “The Lottery”). I do love horror, though, and need to give them a try. She also wrote some hysterical memoirs about motherhood that I think you’d like. (Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons)

    1. Teresa, you MUST read them. I don’t know if I’d call them ‘horror’ because they’re not gory or anything, but they are definitely novels of suspense and psychological thrillers in that your mind conjures up what the words don’t tell you…

      I’d be very interested to read those memoirs! I’m certain I’ve seen them on the library shelf so I will certainly check them out at some point. Thank you for the suggestion!

  7. I love this book, as you know – and the twist came as a big shock to me, although everyone else I’ve given or lent it to has seen it coming a mile off…

  8. I loved Merricat’s rituals. I thought that was such a great facet to the character. And I liked the way Shirley Jackson lay the groundwork so incredibly well for all the things that were going to happen later. I just love her.

    1. Yes – it was those rituals that made me start to wonder about her mental state…Shirley Jackson was so clever. I would love to have been able to have a conversation with her. Her mind worked in the amazing way!

  9. This is one of those titles that has me feeling decidedly out of the loop for having not read it. Sounds like fabulous reading for October so I’m off to stick a Post-It on my copy of Ghost Stories as a reminder.

    Oh my tummy aches just thinking about arsenic poisoning…such a nightmarish way to go!

    1. Darlene, you must read it! I know you would enjoy it, though it’s not British and it’s not interwar!

      Yes I know…the pain must be indescribable…it’s the sickness part that bothers me though. I hate that more than anything!

  10. I actually read this as my first Shirley Jackson novel, and then more recently I read The Haunting of Hill House. I loved WHALITC a lot–I read it for a book club and it was great to discuss. But I didn’t find The Haunting of Hill House all that scary/spooky. The creepiest parts were reading about the house and even the housekeeper.

    1. I’m glad you are a fan of this as well! I found Hill House scary just because I didn’t know what was going to happen next. I think We Have Always Lived… is a bit more frightening because Merricat is so unstable and what she is capable of is so chilling. I definitely agree about the housekeeper in Hill House though…how weird was she?! And then she had no problem chatting to the Professor’s wife! Very odd. I kept expecting her to be revealed as a ghost!

  11. That looks like my cat on the cover! I keep reading about Shirley Jackson but I’ve not read her. Enjoyed your review (as always) and I’m adding it to the tbr.

  12. This sounds a lot like The Behavior of Moths. So much so in fact, that I think the other author must be a big Shirley Jackson Fan. : )

    I got the shivers reading your review as well. I cannot read horror, I get the worst nightmares!

    1. Oh really? I forgot about that book! Yes, I think she was definitely getting her influences from elsewhere- very gothic pastiche!

      I’m not sure you’d like this Traci! But you could give her short stories a try. They could provide you with inspiration for your next blockbuster!

  13. This sounds spooky – i have a great urge to read spooky books at this time of year and scare myself silly. Scary books are a lot spookier than scary films, i think…. I went through a phase of reading loads of ghost stories when i was a teenager, and i seem to remember that i also used to read them to my much younger brothers who were of course properly terrified to the point of refusing to go to bed, how awful now i think about it, what a thing to do!!! Well, I promise not to read this one to small children if I read it, as it sounds really creepy!

    1. There’s something about these dark nights that calls for spooky stories! I hate scary books but somehow I am finding myself reaching for ghost stories at the moment – it’s the atmosphere I like, not the actual frightening myself part! What a lovely sister you were! Sounds like mine – she’d scare me and my brother silly with terrible stories – good thing she’s not doing it to her kids now!

  14. Shirley Jackson also wrote truly hilarious memoirs about her family: “Life Among the Savages”, and “Raising Demons”. Just wonderful, and very different from her truly creepy short stories.

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