“We Have Always lived in the Castle” is the final novel written by Shirley Jackson, three years before her death. It was first published in in 1962 by Viking Press.
In honor of the season and the approaching proximity of Halloween, it’s time to review some gothic horror fiction. Now, “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” is not exactly that horrifying, but it is very gothic and a fairly good alternative to those readers with an aversion to gore, jump scares and general grotesqueness.
The novel follows a young Mary Katherine “Merricat” Blackwood, 18, as she lives in her late parents’ estate with her sister, Constance, 22, and their disabled uncle, Julian. It is clear from the start that none of the Blackwoods quite meet the criteria for “normal,” especially not our protagonist, Merricat. We quickly learn Merricat has a slew of atypical interests, from believing she should have been a werewolf to her love of amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. The surrounding town has a general dislike of the Blackwoods, stemming from six years prior, when Mr. and Mrs. Blackwood were murdered via arsenic poison. Merricat travels through the town only when they have a need for groceries and she is often met with unease or prejudice, which causes her to hate most of them as well, but the Blackwoods are otherwise very happy living in their large estate by themselves.
The majority of the novel focuses around the appearance their estranged cousin, Charles, who shows up one day for a visit only to then seduce Constance and begin living there. Merricat and Charles do not see eye to eye in any way and there is a growing suspicion that Charles is there for an underlying purpose— to find and steal the Blackwood family fortune. As the novel progresses, Julian’s health declines and we learn much more about the family and their past, finding clues to the murder and watching Merricat do all kinds of darkly humorous antics. In the end, we come to find that not everyone are what they seem to be and the Blackwoods ominous history unravels.
This is one of my favorite novels that I read last year. I have never been a huge fan of horror, finding most of it generic and the supernaturalism removes a lot of the impact of the story. That said, creating a story off gothic elements while still keeping it entirely bound by reality can be a really nice combination.
Merricat is a wonderfully interesting character. I would not call her insane, as she cares about other people and has a concept of morals and etiquette, but her interests and activities leave her completely unpredictable and sometimes menacing. Her two other family members play off of her and each other very well, making the story much easier for me to suspend my disbelief over all of their peculiar-ness. Constance is the figurehead of the family, but she mostly just cooks, cares for Julian and lets Merricat run free. Julian also suffered the arsenic poisoning, but survived in a disabled state. He is obsessed with writing his memoir, often forgetting where he is at and then starting all over again.
The novel is only 146 pages, but it does have a slow burning start and possibly even middle. I was kept interested through the characters and the dark humor of the novel, mostly played out by Merricat. The novel is not very plot driven until we near the climax, when everything suddenly falls into the place, the mysteries surrounding the family fade and a crucial event happens in the town.
Being that it is a gothic/horror novel and these characters are so obviously off-beat, it gets away with a few things. You won’t find much in the way of these characters going through major changes. Constance changes probably the most, and Merricat will learn a few things about herself, but both of them remain mostly intact and similar to how they started.
If you are looking for something seasonal to read, or just want to step your foot into the dark waters of gothic and horror fiction, then this novel could be a good place to start. I would definitely recommend giving it a go if the novel interests you.
You can find “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” on Amazon, BookDepository, Barnes & Noble and most other major booksellers.