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!