We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson
Wednesday, Aug 3, 2011
Is there a fiction genre called "cozy horror"? There should be: Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived In The Castle deserves a category of its own. On the surface it is a story about two sisters who live an idyllic, almost fairy-tale existence in their ancestral mansion with their senile, wheelchair-bound Uncle Julian. Constance Blackwood, the older sister, tends to the uncle and grows most of their food in her garden, while Merricat, her younger sister, makes trips on foot to the village for library books and groceries, spending the rest of her time wandering the woods and meadows that comprise the family estate, accompanied by her cat, Jonas.
Yet there is a chilling undercurrent that runs through their bright spring days. Merricat feels it when Constance, who hasn’t left the premises in six years, begins to talk about venturing out into the world again. And then there is the troubling matter of what happened to the rest of the Blackwoods. Six years earlier they all died after ingesting arsenic in their sugar at dinner. Constance, who cooked all the family's meals, was tried for the murders but was acquitted. The people of the village, who still believe Constance guilty, use this as an excuse to taunt Merricat when she goes into town, although, according to her, ”The people of the village have always hated us."
One day Cousin Charles turns up on their doorstep and it soon becomes clear he is after the family fortune he believes is hidden somewhere in the house. Constance seems swayed by his charms but Merricat perceives Charles as a demon who must be exorcised. She employs all the magic she knows. When this fails to drive him away she decides she must take more drastic action. Who will win the battle for Constance, and will we finally learn who was responsible for the murders?
Mary Katherine Blackwood (Merricat), who narrates the story, has been named one the "best character(s) in fiction since 1900."(Book magazine, 2002). She is 18 years old but oddly childlike, fantasizing that she lives on the moon, naming things she is "not allowed" to do like prepare food and pour tea. She is fiercely protective and loving with her sister yet gets satisfaction by imagining the bullying villagers "rotting away and curling in pain and crying…on the ground in front of me."
A perfect summer read at just over 200 pages, We Have Always Lived In The Castle ranks among my favorite novels of all time. Read it to find out why Steven King dedicated one of his books to the author with these words: "In memory of Shirley Jackson, who never had to raise her voice."