We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Published by Penguin Books on October 1, 2015 (first published 1962)
Source: Purchased
Genres: Horror, Classic
Pages: 146
Format: Paperback
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Shirley Jackson's masterpiece: the deliciously dark and funny story of Merricat, tomboy teenager, beloved sister - and possible lunatic.

Living in the Blackwood family home with only her sister Constance and her Uncle Julian for company, Merricat just wants to preserve their delicate way of life. But ever since Constance was acquitted of murdering the rest of the family, the world isn't leaving the Blackwoods alone. And when Cousin Charles arrives, armed with overtures of friendship and a desperate need to get into the safe, Merricat must do everything in her power to protect the remaining family.

Thanks to RIP and FrightFall, I tend to read a few scarier than usual books in October each year. It’s probably the one time of the year when I actually read horror books on purpose anymore. I read way more back in the days of Anne Rice’s vampires and witches, but not so much recently. When I was thinking about what books I might read this month, I decided to include We Have Always Lived in the Castle – it’s a classic so I can use it as my Classics Club Dare book, people love it, and while it’s horror it’s not monster or gory horror. That’s what I love about reading challenges and events, they encourage me to pick up books I wouldn’t normally read and sometimes I love them.

The opening paragraph is an amazing introduction to our narrator, Merricat.

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’s an interesting character. She’s childlike in a lot of ways, she has kind of the wide-eyed wonder at the world around here, she runs outside and hides when she feels threatened. She clearly has an antisocial personality disorder, but she adores her sister and would do anything in her power to protect her. Of course, what Merricat thinks she needs protected from may not be what the rest of society would think. Merricat is kind of an amateur witch, without ever naming herself as such. She thoroughly believes in omens and places wards around their home, burying trinkets or nailing them to trees. She’s not an unreliable narrator, you can believe everything she says, she just has her own way of looking at the world.

The three surviving Blackwoods, Merricat, Constance and their invalid Uncle Julian, live a peaceful, if odd, existence. They don’t get along with the villagers, but you get the feeling that they never did, even before the murders. Then, Cousin Charles shows us, destroying Merricat’s peaceful existence and trying to convince Constance to rejoin the world. It was a disruption Merricat couldn’t stand and she was determined to drive him away. Jackson gives us two young women who are opposites of each other, but have an unbreakable bond. It’s not a relationship of equals, though, even if Constance is older and is the one who cooks and cleans, Merricat is the one with the power and she can’t let Constance be taken away from her.

The book is short, but every bit matters. The phrases Jackson uses are perfect. She weaves the creepy and unsettling into everyday events. We know a disaster is coming but we don’t know how it’s going to play out.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is definitely worth reading. It’s engrossing and creepy, funny and disturbing.

 

About Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson

Shirley Hardie Jackson (December 14, 1916 – August 8, 1965) was an American writer, known primarily for her works of horror and mystery. Over the duration of her writing career, which spanned over two decades, she composed six novels, two memoirs, and over 200 short stories.

A native of San Francisco, California, Jackson later attended Syracuse University in New York, where she became involved with the university’s literary magazine and met her future husband Stanley Edgar Hyman. The couple settled in North Bennington, Vermont in 1940, after which Hyman established a career as a literary critic, and Jackson began writing.

After publishing her debut novel The Road Through the Wall (1948), a semi-autobiographical account of her childhood in California, Jackson gained significant public attention for her short story “The Lottery,” which details a secret, sinister underside to a bucolic American village. She continued to publish numerous short stories in literary journals and magazines throughout the 1950s, some of which were assembled and reissued in her 1953 memoir Life Among the Savages. In 1959, she published The Haunting of Hill House, a supernatural horror novel widely considered to be one of the best ghost stories ever written.

A reclusive woman, Jackson remained in North Bennington for the last years of her life, and was reluctant to discuss her work with the public. By the 1960s, her health began to deteriorate significantly as a result of her increasing weight and cigarette smoking, ultimately leading to her death of heart failure in 1965 at the age of 48.

Reading this book contributed to these challenges:

4 Comments

  1. This was the first Shirly Jackson title I had ever read (although I did see a film representation of The Lottery in high school). You are right that it is short but there is not a wasted word in it. It really is a fantastic but unsettling book. I’ve since also read The Haunting of Hill House and have a copy of Hangsaman waiting for me on my shelf..

    • Carol Evans

      I read The Lottery in high school, but aside from that this is the only one I’ve read. I might add The Haunting of Hill House to my list, but that one seems scarier than this one was.

    • Carol Evans

      I’m not into horror either. This one is unsettling and Merricat is crazy, but I personally don’t know that I would classify it as horror, if I wasn’t looking for something to fit in that category.

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