I was looking forward to reading another book by Shirley Jackson, after enjoying The Haunting of Hill House. However, I was a little underwhelmed by We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Maybe my expectations were too high. It was her last and apparently greatest work. It’s not creepy in the way that Hill House is. There is certainly a chilly atmosphere though. I liked this book but not enough to read it again.
The story is told by Mary Katherine Blackwood (nicknamed Merricat), 18 years old, living in a rundown house with her older sister Constance and her ill Uncle John. She spends most of her time with her cat Jonas, wishing that the other people in the village would drop dead and doing little rituals to safeguard the house. All the rest of her family are dead, allegedly poisoned by Constance. The villagers are afraid of the family and want them to leave. The story is really about the ‘us and them’ attitude and the bond between sisters. I would say that the ultimate message is to never underestimate the power of women.
I thought Merricat was a very interesting narrator but towards the end her repetitiveness got to me. Jackson is very skilled at building up characters and atmospheres, but there could have been more tension. I didn’t get a strong sense of the location either. The cover of my edition shows what looks like a haunted house, and of course the Blackwoods’ house is haunted in a way, but not in the traditional sense. I’m also not sure why the title refers to a ‘castle’.
The first paragraph is one of the best I’ve read in any book.
First published in 1962. The Penguin Modern Classics edition was published in 2009 with an afterword by Joyce Carol Oates.