Books »We Have Always Lived in the Castle

we have always lived in the castle shirley jacksonShirley Jackson is a vivid horror writer, not vivid as in blood and gore, but like her most famous short story, The Lottery, her depictions of the horrors of human cruelty are ones that last in your imagination forever. Since reading that short story in junior high, I'd never tried anything else by the author and am happy to have finally discovered her again with the short novel We Have Always Lived In the Castle, a chilling, twisted, smart, haunting book about a family rocked by murder, insanity, suspicion and class warfare.

Merricat Blackwood (named by Book Magazine as one of The 100 Best Fictional Characters Since 1900) is your narrator, a strange child of eighteen and one of the only surviving members of a prominent family that was killed at breakfast when someone put arsenic in their sugar. Constance, her older sister was acquitted of the murders and poor Uncle Julian's body and mind were permanently warped by his non lethal dosage. Together the three of them, along with Jonas, the cat, live in an old mansion apart from the rest of the village. They are completely sheltered from the outside world except for the two days a week Merricat goes into the village for goods and must endure the stares and laughter of the villagers, and Sundays when members of other prominent families bravely take tea with the two mysterious girls.

Their beloved castle is under the protection of Merricat's sympathetic magic described by wikipedia as:
a type of magic based on imitation or correspondence. Imitation involves using effigies or poppets to affect the environment of people, or occasionally people themselves. Correspondence is based on the idea that one can influence something based on its relationship to another thing.”
For example, she buries items like a box of silver coins and nails her father's books to the surrounding trees to keep out strangers, and once that book falls, she knows danger is imminent.

That danger comes in the form of Uncle Charles, a thieving manipulator who can fool the frail Constance, but not so easily the equally manipulative Merricat who envisions different ways he could die (turning him into a fly and leaving him in a spiders web, or perhaps just stomping him to death in the garden…) during his very unappreciated visit. His presence sparks the end of their structured way of living and after an eruption of fire and violence, marks the beginning of a new far weirder secluded way of living for the two sisters.

It's part Grey Gardens, part Tim Burton (who would have a grand time adapting this), part old timey Gaslight thriller, and I loved it. It was interesting to find out that Jackson was an agoraphobic herself, which is probably why the extremely eccentric but happy sisters are sympathetic and oddly relatable while all the outsiders are depicted as cruel or petty. While Jackson is not as well known today as she deserves to be, this, her last novel did come out in a new edition in 2007 with a smart looking cover featuring an illustration by Thomas Ott (pictured) but the original cover is also pretty wonderful and both adorn an equally great read.

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Posted on December 28, 2008

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