Author: Shirley Jackson
Genre: Mystery / Suspense
Pages: 146 (paperback)
Selected By: Elle Tea
Elle Tea’s Score:
“Merricat Blackwood lives on the family estate with her sister Constance and her Uncle Julian. Not long ago there were seven Blackwoods – until a fatal dose of arsenic found its way into the sugar bowl one terrible night. Acquitted of the murders, Constance has returned home, where Merricat protects her from the curiosity and hostility of the villagers. Their days pass in happy isolation until cousin Charles appears. Only Merricat can see the danger, and she must act swiftly to keep Constance from his grasp.”
Elle Tea’s Review
I somehow managed to miss ever reading We Have Always Lived in the Castle, so as part of my classic Halloween horror celebration, I picked up a copy and have to say…
I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf… but I have had to be content with what I had.
This might have just beaten out Hill House as my new favorite work by Shirley Jackson. It’s not horror as we’ve come to imagine it, nor is it really a mystery or suspense novel, as it’s often categorized. It’s short and surreal, with all of the whimsy of a Wonderland dream combined with an unsettling undertone that turns it into one of those nightmares that has you waking in a sudden panic, though with your first waking breath you’ve already forgotten what filled you with so much anxiety, and the only coherent thought you can muster – for some reason that you can only attribute to your faded dream – is: Did I lock the front door?
I wished they were all dead and I was walking on their bodies.
This is such a classic that I don’t think there’s any way I could spoil it for anyone, but if you’ve actually never heard of this story before and plan to read it, I suggest you skip the remainder of this review and just take my word for it that this is a book well worth reading at least once in everyone’s life. I’d also caution you to avoid reading anything online about this story, including the summaries offered by most sellers and even on some editions of the book itself. You’ve been warned: if you’ve managed to miss any mention of this novel up to this point in your life and truly have no idea what might happen, what follows after this will spoil a key element which is revealed during the climax of the story.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea? Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me. Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep? Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!
Six years prior to the start of our tale, the affluent Blackwood family sat down to dinner, all save Merricat, who, as punishment for some unnamed mischief, had been banished to her room without any supper. Some cheeky little nutter had put arsenic in the sugar bowl, however, and only Constance, who never ate sugar, and Uncle Julian, who had only a very small amount of sugar that day, survived to tell the tale. Uncle Julian was rushed to the hospital, Constance was arrested and charged with the murders, and Merricat was banished to an orphanage. Upon her acquittal, Constance immediately fetched Julian and Merricat and forced them all into exile behind the safety of their manor walls.
… on Sunday morning I lay there with Jonas, listening to his stories. All cat stories start with the statement: “My mother, who was the first cat, told me this,” and I lay with my head close to Jonas and listened.
And thus our story begins. Constance, now twenty-eight, has nurtured a nearly debilitating agoraphobia over the past six years; she refuses to step foot beyond the garden near the house, the drapes are kept tightly shut in all rooms save the kitchen, and they receive no visitors save two women from the town’s other well-to-do families – and even they are received only on certain days and times as assigned by Constance herself. Blackwood Manor, we are led to believe, is her sanctuary; it is the one place she is safe from the accusing eyes and hateful tongues of the townsfolk, who believe she quite literally got away with murder. There, within those high walls, she cares for Uncle Julian, whose health has been poor since that fateful day; she wheels him out to the garden for fresh air, answers his every call, and entertains his every whim. Likewise, she has taken on the role of guardian to her younger sister, the eighteen-year-old Merricat, whose fanciful notions give one the impression of a child much, much younger. Constance’s life, in short, has become one long, unending penance, presumably for the murders she knows full-well she committed.
On the moon we wore feathers in our hair, and rubies on our hands. On the moon we had gold spoons.
*****SPOILER ALERT*****→ And yet, even despite her later assertions that everything was and is her fault, Constance never really seems to have it in her to kill anyone. She’s content with her roles of housekeeper and surrogate mother, and her insistence on doting on Merricat, on treating her like a small child and encouraging her fancies, begins very early in to feel wrong. Likewise, Merricat’s fanciful notions, from her belief that she truly influences people and changes the course of events with her use of sympathetic magic to her idea of making a home full of gold and cabbage on the moon, seem innocently sweet and childlike, right up until the point when something – anything – happens of which the young Miss does not approve; in which case Merricat goes from zero to death-wish in under 0.01 seconds flat; her mind, so full of color and imagination, twists and takes a turn straight into darkness: she wishes quite frequently for those who displease her to die – and she has very specific ways she would like that to happen, as well as ways she would celebrate their deaths, ranging from having pie with her sister to dancing on their mutilated corpses.
As one does, I suppose. ←*****END SPOILER*****
“They are the children of the strangers,” I told her. “They have no faces… Pretend they are birds. They can’t see us. They don’t know it yet, they don’t want to believe it, but they won’t ever see us again.”
*****SPOILER ALERT*****→ Now, in the spirit of full disclosure, I will say that I’d heard of this novel a lot in the past, so I knew before even opening this book that Mary Katherine had been the one to put the arsenic in the sugar bowl – I don’t even remember when I learned this, but so many people have read and loved this book over the past five decades since it was first published that the info could have come from anywhere. So, I was actually quite surprised to find that the story begins with and maintains the assumption that Constance killed their family and did, therefore, get away with murder for a majority of its plot… but my knowledge ahead of time that this was not entirely the case may very well have impacted my impressions of both sisters. ←*****END SPOILER*****
“I will go on my winged horse and bring you cinnamon and thyme, emeralds and clove, cloth of gold and cabbages.”
*****SPOILER ALERT*****→ As the story progresses, so to does the madness. Dotty old Uncle Julian’s pitifully sweet personality mutates into one which gives the impression that perhaps he knows more than he’s letting on before giving way to stubborn insistence on preserving and maintaining every minute detail of that one fateful meal and its aftermath – with the huge exception of the fact that Merricat did not die in the orphanage; if he does know something, he’s clearly not willing to do anything about it, making the fact that he persists in bringing it up at all hours of the day and night pure passive-aggressiveness at its finest. Merricat’s rambling mental wanderings become more erratic; she daydreams about her dead family members worshiping her, she believes her cat tells her stories, and she plots out what spells to cast on those who threaten them to ensure her and her sister’s continued safety and privacy. And Constance, so sweet and patient from the start, gradually reveals herself to have been a co-dependent enabler and an accessory to her family’s murders all along; perhaps she feels guilty about the negligence and snobbery of their parents, or perhaps she simply doesn’t want to lose the last family member she has left… but whatever her reasons, Constance makes it clear that she knew from day one that Merricat had poisoned their family, and it becomes known to us that, not only did she know this, but her inaction at the time of the murders led to a doctor not being called in time to save anyone except Julian, she alone cleaned up the evidence before the police arrived, and she never confronted Merricat about what had happened. Blackwood Manor, rather than the sanctuary it seemed at the beginning, turns out by the end to be a haunted house, with the two sisters roaming its blackened halls, cursed by their own hands to watch the world of the living pass them by from behind boarded windows. ←*****END SPOILER*****
“I shall weave a suit of leaves. At once. With acorns for buttons… I shall have a lining of moss, for cold winter days, and a hat made of bird feathers.”
We Have Always Lived in the Castle is an excellent, albeit very short, read and one which I strongly recommend. Even if you go into it knowing the Who, When, and Where, trying to determine the Why will make this one a book worth going back to time and time again.
Elle Tea read the Penguin Classics edition of this selection.