Title: We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Author: Shirley Jackson
Original Publication Date: 1962
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Page Count: 147
Genre: Horror Fiction
Why: Recommended by Margot at Lectito
1)“I can’t help it when people are frightened,” said Merricat. “I always want to frighten them more.”
Friend(s) who would enjoy this book: Melanie at GTL (I know it is on your list!), Tyra, Mr. Quatro, Divya, Belle, Kate @ Read and Dream
Song(s) in the soundtrack of this book:
1. The Spiteful Chant, Kendrick Lamar (This is Merricat)
2. Sheila Put the Knife Down, Junior Prom
3. People Are Strange, Jim Morrison and The Doors
4. Everybody Wants To Rule The World, Tears For Fears
5. Stay Schemin, Rick Ross (I don’t wanna go to court)
6. Lost It To Trying (Mouths Only Lying), Son Lux
7. Money, Money, Money, ABBA (for dear cousin Charles)
8. Late July, Shakey Graves (the same intention and feeling)
9. The Look, Metronomy
10. Another One Bites The Dust, Queen (and ironic nod to the Blackwood murders)
11. From The Ritz To The Rubble, Arctic Monkeys (a perfect summation)
Although We Have Always Lived in the Castle may only be 147 pages, it is chock-full of the kind of terror that disturbs a reader during both day and night. Masterfully written, Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle is all things bizarre and contains Jackson’s unique brand of horror that is often said to “touch upon the terror of an entire culture”.
Mary Catherine Blackwood (here on known as Merricat) and her older sister Constance Blackwood live in the Blackwood house at the edge of the village and take care of their crippled Uncle Julian, who battles dementia. The rest of the Blackwood family is dead, owing to arsenic somehow finding its way into the sugar bowl one night at dinner. Constance is accused of the murder, as she is the only one who cooks, but is later acquitted. The villagers and the Blackwoods have never gotten along; there is a enmity between the two, and after the murder relations only become worse. With the villagers’ hostility to the Blackwood increasing and the arrival of greedy cousin Charles to the Blackwood house, Merricat’s mission to protect Constance becomes more and more difficult.
Merricat is the center of this story and the first person narrator (with a unique voice), and honestly there is no better description for her than the one she provides herself (the opening lines of the book).
“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 our family is dead.”
Merricat is the epitome of the demonic, egocentric, and mischievous child. She has an intimate connection with nature, especially on the Blackwood grounds. In order to guard from outside forces that might invade her and Constance’s small bubble in the house, Merricat performs incredibly weird rituals.
“All our land was enriched with my treasures buried in it, thickly inhabited just below the surface with my marbles and my teeth and my colored stones, all perhaps turned to jewels by now, held together under the ground in a powerful taut web which never loosened, but held fast to guard us.”
We mainly learn about Merricat as she narrates her day to day experiences, all incredibly routine and unchanging until the arrival of Charles. These strange daily experiences are creepy in every way and make the reader feel intensely uncomfortable. On the days when Merricat isn’t burying things, cleaning the house, traversing the woods, or traveling to the village she still finds things to do that make the reader think “what even?”:
“on Thursday, which was my most powerful day I went into the big attic and dressed in their [her dead family’s] clothes.”
Merricat holds a deep hatred for the village and the villagers in her heart. She often dreams of killing and poisoning those that get in her way or that look down upon her. For example, when faced with stares while shopping at the grocery store, Merricat thinks:
“I would have liked to come into the grocery some morning and see them all… lying there crying with the pain and dying.”
It quickly becomes quite obvious to the reader that Merricat is more than just a little insane. And as the story progressed, Merricat’s thirst for power and respect only increase leading to insanity filling each and every page.
Merricat and Constance play very well off of each other; they are almost exact opposites. Where Merricat is controlling and unforgiving, Constance is gentle and kind. While Merricat takes frequent trips to the village and wanders the woods near their house, Constance “only ventures as far as the garden”. Merricat is always on the offensive, and holds her sister’s safety and happiness as top priority, even stating “[Constance] was the most precious person in my world, always.” Merricat is always alert and aware- ensuring that the title remains true, that the girls always have and always will live in the Blackwood House. When an intruder, cousin Charles, arrives at the house, Merricat is easily able to sense it.
“A change was coming and nobody knew it but me.”
The function of cousin Charles as a singular strong male presence in a female environment (Uncle Julian is constantly emasculated and not forceful) completely disrupts Merricat’s routine, leading to her deep disapproval of Charles. This idea of female vs. male and the ultimate rejection of Charles from the female dominated environment was reminiscent of The Haunting of Hill House (with the overwhelming mother presence) for me.
The setting of the book, the village, is an incredibly important part of the book as well.
“From the time the village was first put together out of old grey wood and the ugly people with their evil faces were brought from some impossible place and set down in the houses to live.”
The Blackwoods have always been isolated from the common villagers, and the role of this isolation in creating hostility is important. After the arsenic incident the villagers often sing to Merricat:
“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!”
The hatred from the villagers deeply influences Merricat, and it becomes apparent throughout the book that she enjoys and craves isolation. Each main character in their own way is an outsider, and throughout the book the Blackwoods grow more and more reclusive.
Jackson repeats many ideas through Merricat, one being color in the village. The village and all things that Merricat hates are described as grey and black, while things that Merricat tolerates are often colored. For example, Merricat’s only acquaintance in the village has a pinkish blush and Merricat and Constance never wear black clothing. In addition, Merricat constantly repeats the joy she would feel if she lived on the moon, a theme that essentially comes to mean a dream place away from the village. This repetition allows the reader to better understand Merricat and the village.
The ending of We Have Always Live in the Castle is both chilling and fantastic. Merricat and Constance have completely shut out the outside world, and finally Merricat is happy as has landed on the moon. Unsettling, and just plain scary We Have Always Lived in the Castle is not a tale of a haunted house, but instead a close look at what makes a house haunted in the first place.
“And we held each other in the dark hall and laughed, with the tears running down our cheeks and echoes of our laughter going up the ruined stairway to the sky.
‘I am so happy,’ Constance said at last, gasping. ‘Merricat, I am so happy.’
‘I told you that you would like it on the moon.”