Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 176 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Put the kettle on, grab yourself some snacks and make sure you’ve got no other plans when you curl up to read this book, because We Have Always Lived in the Castle is one of those delicious, atmospheric reads from which you will not want to be disturbed.
I was caught in the sway of this mesmirising novel, Shirley Jackson‘s last (it was first published in 1962 and she died in 1965), from its opening lines:
My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.
How could you not be intrigued by that?
Sadly, it’s difficult to properly review this novel without giving away crucial plot spoilers, so I’ll refrain from telling you too much about the story. (A cursory glance at the blurb on this newly published Penguin Modern Classic edition does reveal one of the “secrets” but it doesn’t ruin the suspense.)
Basically, Mary Katherine, also known as Merricat, lives a secluded life with her sister and their bumbling, eccentric Uncle Julian, in Blackwood House, a Gothic-like mansion surrounded by woods on the outskirts of a village. Every Tuesday and Friday Merricat braves the wrath and scorn of the villagers (“The people of the village have always hated us”), who stare and gossip, to buy food and borrow library books. When she enters the grocery store the owner rushes to serve her before anyone else, while other shoppers stop what they’re doing…
holding a can or a half-filled bag of cookies or a head of lettuce, not willing to move until I had gone out the door again…
This sense of creepiness builds further when she has coffee in the local coffee shop, because
If anyone else came in and sat down at the counter I would leave my coffee without seeming hurried, and leave.
It’s almost like whichever way Merricat turns, there’s an insidious, nasty reminder that she, and her family, are not wanted. But what did they do to earn this hate? The answer to this is the nub of the novel, so I’m not going to tell you here.
But essentially, the secretive, hermit-like existence that the Blackwood’s lead is disrupted when Charles, a long-lost cousin, makes an unexpected visit and settles in for the duration. Merricat, a wayward, naive and some might say decidedly kooky teenager, feels so threatened by his presence that she goes out of her way to make him feel particularly unwelcome — with intriguing consequences.
As much as I enjoyed this book and the oppressive, Gothic atmosphere it creates — think The Village of the Damned meets The Wicker Man — I did guess the main revelation before the half-way point. But even so, this is a thrilling read, and I can easily see why Shirley Jackson has never been out of print in her native America.
It’s not a horror story per se, because it won’t have you checking underneath the bed for monsters, but it’s a kind of twisted fairytale with a dash of black comedy and a pinch of mystery. Or, as Joyce Carol Oates claims in the Afterword, “We Have Always Lived in the Castle becomes a New England fairy tale of the more wicked variety, in which a ‘happy ending’ is both ironic and literal, the consequences of unrepentant witchcraft and a terrible sacrifice — of others”.