We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a macabre tale of mysterious tragedy.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a psychological gothic horror novel that isn’t easily put in a box. There’s no genre that perfectly fits with the story. It’s a psychological macabre tale that is unnerving, tragic, mysterious, melancholic, poetic, strange and most of all outstanding. Shirley Jackson has a unique voice that echoes a misanthropic view that still holds on to a glimpse of hope and the curious, but also the macabre. This novel is no different. With an enthralling tale Jackson spins a web of poetic horror that settles under your skin.
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Merricat Blackwood is 18 years old and lives with her 28 year-old sister Constance and uncle Julian and her cat Jonas in the biggest house of the village. The Blackwoods have always lived there, but six years ago Merricat’s mother Lucy, father John, little brother Thomas and uncle Julian’s wife Dorothy died from poisoned sucker. Constance was blamed, but acquitted. This left uncle Julian in a wheelchair and Constance doesn’t leave the house anymore, while the villagers are suspicious of them. When Merricat has to go into the village to do the groceries the children sing her a song, but at home in the house they are all safe. All that is about to change when suddenly cousin Charles brings them a visit and isn’t planning on leaving.
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!
Why you should read it
We Have Always Lived in the Castle is told from Merricat’s perspective. She’s a very peculiar and macabre little girl and she describes to us their isolated existence, which she actually prefers. She’s happy with Constance and uncle Julian and Jonas and she has retreated with her own fantasies. This results in a beautiful, poetic but macabre writing style that pulls you into her thoughts. The world outside is considered a threat and the villagers are evil people, who create an oppressive atmosphere. To ward off those threats Merricat buries treasures as charms to keep them safe. She inspects the fence every week, she can’t say some words out loud, and when she walks around the village she plays a game. These incantations are compulsive and give her a tragic feel.
The arrival of Charles changes all that. He doesn’t care for her compulsive acts and wants to make big changes. And Merricat is afraid of change. Just like Merricat, Constance also wants to keep things the way they are, which is reflected by her big supply of home-made conserves of fruit and vegetables. But it’s also something all the Blackwood women did before her. Even uncle Julian is occupying himself with the past. He desperately wants to find out what exactly happened that fatal day and takes notes of every detail he can remember. Each of them have rituals to make it through the day, to ward off the outside world, to keep things as they are.
The sentence ‘we have always’ is a big motif in this novel. The house, the village, the villagers, the Blackwoods and their relationship with the village, everything has always been the same. Nothing changes. This is the overall theme of the novel, it’s the motivation of the three main characters. Even if something isn’t ideal, keeping the things the way they are, feels safe. The story isn’t about what exactly happened to John, Lucy, Thomas and Dorothy but about the why and what comes after. Charles is a big interference and shows that it’s impossible to always live inside a safe bubble of your own. But he’s also up to something nasty.
It’s also a story about being different, not fitting in which causes the world to feel like a threat. Like in most of Jackson’s stories the view of humankind isn’t flattering. Most people are selfish or rude, some mean well but show it in a very awkward way. This causes fear, social fear but it also shows in the OCD behavior of both Merricat and uncle Julian and the agoraphobia of Constance. This struggle is a big element in the book and very sincerely woven into the story, adding more weight to their tragic lives.
The fear that the villagers have for the Blackwoods also comes forth form the fear of the unknown, the uncontrollable and also being different from the rich powerful Blackwood family. From both sides there’s fear because there’s nothing but a big gap between them of not being able to come closer to one-another. Though the fear of the villagers acts out in different ways, being hostile and angry.
Sometimes We Have Always Lived in the Castle feels like an urban legend. A legend about two spinsters who lived in a village and who scared the people and the children away. To please the two spinster the villagers brought them food so that they would leave them alone. But it’s also more than a folktale with its underlying themes and motifs that address social issues and psychological fears.
It’s a disturbing tale of a disturbed young woman that is written beautifully, but also has some dark witty humor and a keen observant eye for human nature. It’s has a unique style and an authentic voice that tells about unconventional people. It’s a very addictive read that feels like a dark fairytale.
My favorite part
The way Merricat is brought to life is amazingly done. She’s a wonderful character and completely herself when she’s alone on the grounds with Jonas. She represents mental health issues in a very sincere way that is written with integrity and very realistic. Jackson knows like no other how to describe feeling and being different in a very relatable way, so that even if you are very normal you can dive inside of a girl that isn’t. But the whole novel is a wonderful read with a writing style that enchants and bewilders you. Every character is fleshed out and comes to life, with all their good and bad traits being all very human. The poetic and unnerving words will definitely linger on long after you have finished this brilliant novel.
A favoriet quote
‘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 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.’
Drama factor: ★★★★★
Originality factor: ★★★★★
Entertainment factor: ★★★★★
Read more about Shirley Jackson:
We Have Always Lived in the Castle is written by Shirley Jackson and first published in 1962. It consists of 146 pages.