We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Content Warning: imagining people’s deaths, discussion of a murder, and a creepy ambiance that you may find uncomfortable/spooky (if you don’t like “horror” novels).

 

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Shirley Jackson’s most famous novel, We have Always Lived in the Castle, was published in 1962. My copy is from the library, published in 1963, and the copyright states that the book was in its 6th printing. Jackon’s bio in my old book is in present tense. *sad wiggly chin here* Jackson died at 48, and I mourn what else she could have written. Actually there are STILL books coming out by Jackson, compiled by her children from Jackson’s boxes of papers, such as Let Me Tell You, released in 2015.

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I’m familiar with Shirley Jackson’s wonderfully horrifying works, having read The Haunting of Hill House, “The Lottery,” Hangsaman, Let Me Tell You, and The Road Through the Wall. In her most famous work, Jackson opens We Have Always Lived in the Castle with Mary Katherine Blackwood, a nervous and hateful girl who enters her local village to buy groceries. She imagines smashing in heads and walking on the corpses of anyone who looks at her. Quick to return home, Mary Katherine imagines she is on the moon, where things are better. Waiting at the house are older sister Constance and invalid Uncle Julian.

Some (unclear amount of) time ago, Constance was tried for the murder of every other Blackwood after they died by poisoning after dinner. These three misfits are all who are left. Fearful, Constance hasn’t left the house since the trial, and the deaths of all other Blackwoods drove Uncle Julian to illness — physical and mental. Every day is the same and runs on schedule until a strange cousin arrives and upsets the household by endearing Constance to him. Is he there to connect to family? Find the source of their money and take it? Be helpful?

 

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is narrated in first-person by Mary Katherine, but she is able to keep everyone, readers included, at a distance. We feel we would be wished dead if we crossed paths with her. Her dream to live on the moon separates her too, but also suggests MK would be happy to suffocate to death. She is also a superstitious girl, burying items around the expansive property to prevent bad things and coming up with magic words that, if not said, will create a desired outcome. Mary Katherine’s superstitions are so omnipresent that it’s easy to believe in their power. Does Shirley Jackson suggest MK is a witch of sorts? Perhaps. Constance is the opposite: blond, pale, blue-eyed, like a fairy princess, and good. In MK’s head, we know she is not good, though it’s often hard to pinpoint why. This juxtaposition left me on edge, wondering how Constance could be a murderer and MK not.

Jackson’s true talent lies in her ability to creep readers out over practically nothing. A tone. Odd diction. Unusual reactions. While Uncle Julian describes the damning evidence against Constance that made her the only suspect in the murders, she’s smiling joyfully. Constance buys arsenic (“to kill rats”), she makes dinner, sets the table for dinner, and watches “them dying around her like flies…and never called a doctor until it was too late.” After, Constance washes the sugar bowl in which the arsenic was contained (“I saw a spider in it”) and “she told the police those people deserved to die.” Here, Uncle Julian defends Constance’s phrasing: “I deserve to die — we all do, do we not?” Rational me is thinking, How can you not all see how obvious this is! She’s an angelic murderer!! But Jackson doesn’t make it so easy. Constance is sweet. Constance is motiveless. Constance is not imprisoned. It is the villagers, instead, who are the faceless evil, who practically move in slow motion and without civilized behavior (much like the end of “The Lottery”).

 

Per usual, Jackson plays with time so that we’re never quite aware of how much has passed. The narrative leaves unclear how long ago all but Constance, Mary Katherine, and Uncle Julian were poisoned to death. Although told that Constance is 28, I don’t know how old MK is. She’s described as a silly girl, but is likely 18 or older. (10/29/2017 Correction: My husband pointed out that on page 1 Mary Katherine says she’s 18.)

Later, after the Blackwood house is irrevocably molested, Constance and MK continue to live there, but no longer go further than the immediate lawn. The house is taken over by the wilderness. Exactly how long have the sisters remained in the uninhabitable house? Slippery time indeed. It passes. The sisters become the stuff of legends and are able to survive on food left on their porch. Time seems infinite. Many villagers say they once heard of the sisters, but don’t remember them. Are the sisters old ladies now? They leave food offerings to appease the sisters when someone whispers a potential offense against the Blackwoods. We’re back to superstitions; Constance and Mary Katherine can’t hear people talking about them in the village, of course. Jackson slips into the realm of fairy tales and delights the reader with tropes used in strange ways. I would argue We Have Always Lived in the Castle is about where a fairy tales comes from and found the novel it to be another chilling accomplishment listed on Jackson’s resume.

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38 thoughts on “We Have Always Lived in the Castle

  1. Great review! I loved this one and I think we’re on the same wavelength about it. My feeling was that this is the story of the old witch in the cottage of many a folk tale, but told from the point of view of the witch when she was young – and what made her into the witch that everyone fears. Merricat is just a fantastic creation – one of those truly unforgettable characters that so rarely come along… 😀

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  2. I’ve never read a Jackson book, but they sounds fabulous! This one sounds ultra creepy, I got weirded out just reading your review and looking at the old covers. Stuff written decades ago seem to be so much scarier than contemporary literature…sort of like movies I think.

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    1. I agree!! Last night I watched The Bad Seed, a 1954 film based on the play, which was based on the book (meaning the book was published that much earlier). I was telling my husband there are different kinds of scary movies: disgusting, anxiety-inducing, and horrifying. Disgusting are all these contemporary movies about torturing and cutting up and dismembering people. I won’t watch them. The anxiety movies are the ones that use loud sound and jump scares to make you feel anxious the whole film in anticipation of being as startled. I watch some of these, and hesitantly. Then there’s horrifying, the kind of movie that makes your mouth drop because you can’t fathom such evil. Those I love. Get Out, The Bad Seed, Repulsion, The Shining. If you like going to the theater, Happy Death Day doesn’t show gore, doesn’t have jump scares, and is pretty fun.

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  3. I was late to this book but was so impressed when I did eventually get around to it, by the way she created a protagonist that drew me to her and yet made me feel distinctly uncomfortable at the same time

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  4. This was my first Jackson book which I read only a few years ago and probably my favourite. I agree that she manages to make the everyday creepy. I found the creepiest moment in HH was outside during the daytime when they were walking round the grounds. I will no doubt re-read ‘Castle’ at some point.

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  5. The only thing I’ve read by Jackson (so far) is The Lottery, and even that was recently. My daughter’s contemporary dance class was choreographing a dance to go with the story, so of course I wanted to read it before watching the dance. They did a great job – I felt so tense and creeped out the whole time.
    There will definitely be more Shirley Jackson in my future!

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    1. A dance?! That is so cool! If you love short scary stories, you should really try “The Monkey’s Paw.” Freaked my shit out, Naomi. Not only that, but it freaked my mom out years and years ago, and SHE still remembers it!

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  6. Ooh I love her short stories, she is so chilling. Somehow have still not read this and Haunting Hill – seems like the perfect time of year to sort that right out!

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  7. I have wanted to read this book for so long! I didn’t know the author died so young. I’ve read The Lottery and the Haunting of Hill House, but there is something so eerie about this one that has been so enticing. I love how creepy you make this one sounds and I’m kicking myself for not including it in this month’s TBR. Loved the review!

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  8. Wowza– even this review just gave me the creeps! It’s obvious that Jackson was a very skilled writer! You stated above that she died young; what happened? It’s always tragic when a brilliant mind passes before they can share all their potential with the world.

    Surprisingly, I haven’t heard of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but I did read The Lottery in school. I had completely forgotten about it until now… that was probably my brain protecting me. It definitely freaked me out and gave me nightmares! Her writing is very eerie. And I didn’t see the twist coming, but I was also in my teens… I wonder which of her works I’d appreciate as an adult? Have you read any of her other works?

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    1. I read The Haunting of Hill House in college and loved it. It’s probably my favorite. I guess she died of heart failure, and Wikipedia claims she was overweight and smoked forever and had health issues related to the two. When I look at pics of her, she never looks big to me, so I’m wondering if the overweight thing was misguided. Not that being bigger or smaller means we can judge a person’s health, but Wikipedia almost makes it sound like they can.

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      1. Well, Wikipedia is also crowdsourcing knowledge, so I sometimes find that you need a grain of salt with it. I get so frustrated when people feel you can judge someone’s health based on their physical size. It’s enfuriating. But, BMI charts are also enfuriating to me…

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  9. This is one of my all-time favorites. I loved your review, but it reminded me how much I’ve already forgotten. Maybe I should do a reread soon 🙂 this book was absolutely stunning.
    I am sad though that the author died so young… I didn’t know that. And I’ve also not read anything else of hers, for some reason. I think I absolutely should.

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