We Have Always Lived in the Castle

we-have-always-lived-in-the-castleHere’s what I knew about this novel by Shirley Jackson before I started reading it. It’s creepy. There’s an old house and some sisters, maybe some ghosts, and lots of secrets. And it’s really very creepy. So not much. I’ve seen it mentioned on a lot of blogs, but either I’ve been forgetting the reviews as soon as I read them or the blog reviews are scant on details. (Given that I mostly remember books by blogging about them, it wouldn’t surprise me a bit to learn that the blog reviews I’ve read explained the premise in detail but that I forgot. Maybe I need to start a book blog blog so I can better remember reviews.)

Anyway, my review will not be particularly scant on detail, but I will try to avoid big spoilers. I say try because the nature of these characters’ story is revealed slowly, and some people will consider early reveals to be spoilers. I do not.

So I was right in thinking that this book was about sisters. Two sisters. Merricat Blackwood, our narrator, is the younger sister. She’s the one who runs errands into town so that her older sister, Constance, doesn’t have to. Merricat tell us early on that most of her family is dead. Her wheelchair-bound uncle, Julian, still survives and lives with Merricat and Constance. The townspeople have viewed the family, especially Constance, with suspicion ever since the rest of the Blackwoods were poisoned with arsenic that had been mixed in the sugar bowl.

The deaths are the first of the terrible things to happen to the sisters—the terrible thing that happened in the past. But some other terrible thing is looming. Merricat hints at it when the novel opens:

The last time I glanced at the library books on the kitchen shelf they were more than five months overdue, and I wondered whether I would have chosen differently if I had known that these were the last books, the ones which would stand forever on our kitchen shelf. We rarely moved things; the Blackwoods were never much  of a family for restlessness and stirring.

The Blackwoods seem to live by routine. The routine keeps them safe. It enables them to care for each other. Staying at home is one way to preserve the routine and keep out the suspicions and demands of the outside world. Shirley Jackson was herself agoraphobic, and the Blackwoods’ sense of safety in the home feels both absolutely right and horribly wrong. The world is terrifying, especially when the neighbors are cruel and suspicious. But the world will not be easily turned away.

For the Blackwoods, the world comes to the door in the person of a cousin, Charles. His arrival brings to the surface Constance’s feeling that their current isolation cannot, perhaps should not, last forever. Isolation may be safe, but what would it cost to preserve it?

Of course, a great cataclysm eventually occurs, but I think the bigger cataclysm is internal. Actually, it may be the lack of cataclysm that’s the biggest thing. However you might look at it, the drama of this book is internal. Death and destruction pale in comparison to the breaking of a mind. It’s not houses or neighbors or routines that imprison, it’s minds. It’s minds that are creepy. It’s minds that contain ghosts. The terror of this book is all in the mind.

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22 Responses to We Have Always Lived in the Castle

  1. Shirley Jackson’s relationship to houses is so fascinating to me in her fiction. The characters are always stuck in a house that’s trapping them and they want to be away from it, but they know everything will be worse if they leave it. Cf The Sundial & The Haunting of Hill House. It’s a weird and sad motif when you know a little bit about her own history.

    Anyway, I am pleased you liked this!! It’s good, right? Makes you wish Shirley Jackson had left behind way more novels?

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve not read The Haunting of Hill House or The Sundial, although I loved the movie of The Haunting (the old one, not the lamer more recent one). And the chosen imprisonment there is equally creepy.

      It’s weird to think that she also wrote those funny child-rearing memoirs, although even those had some dark moments.

  2. I picked up this book once when I was a teenager, and was into Gothic horror, and found it too “adult” for my tastes, so put it down without finishing it. What I mean by that is that there was no quick and easy thrill such as a Gothic fan might enjoy, it just seemed to be all premonition and suspenseful build-up; but then, I didn’t get to the end. The most promising part was when the narrator remarked something like “I’m sure I’ll be a werewolf, because the index fingers of my hands are as long as my middle fingers.” I was keen on werewolves at the time. It’s rather the same misunderstanding that arose at about the same time when I picked up “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” hoping to find the “dirty” bits, and instead was treated mostly to a political treatise about the class structure in England at a given time. Teenagers are peculiar beings, aren’t they? But then, if we survive into adulthood, we’ve all been through it. I can see I’lll have to give Shirley Jackson’s book another try, now that I’m presumably mature enough to enjoy it.

    • Teresa says:

      The end is really quite creepy, but the terrifying thing about it kind of sneaks up on you. Definitely not a Gothic thrill ride.

      I had a similar experience with Wuthering Heights, which I thought was supposed to be this amazing love story and ended up being disgusted by it. But as an adult I love it.

  3. litlove says:

    I adored this novel. It’s such a black fairy tale, with the sisters living happily ever after in their ruins, with their persecutors now providing food. I really want to read all of Jackson’s novels – she had such a way with a sentence. Lovely review!

  4. JaneGS says:

    > It’s minds that are creepy. It’s minds that contain ghosts. The terror of this book is all in the mind.

    You really nailed it–it is an internally driven book, and that makes it so unsettling. I had to go back and reread what I wrote about it after I read it a couple of years ago.

    Not a fun book to read, but Jackson is definitely a master of her craft.

  5. Stefanie says:

    “The terror of this book is all in the mind” yes, yes! That’s what I loved most about it and Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House. So creepy and so delicious!

    • Teresa says:

      I have got to read Haunting of Hill House. I love the movie–especially for how by the end the ghosts aren’t the scariest part, even for me who tends to find haunted houses terrifying.

  6. Alex says:

    Is this intended for adults? I haven’t come across either the novel or the author before but your review makes it sound like something one of the UK’s better children’s writers, Jenny Nimmo would write. Whoever the intended audience might be, it certainly sounds like one for me.

    • Teresa says:

      This is intended for adults–that’s where you’d find it in most bookstores. Jackson is well known in the U.S. mostly for her short story, “The Lottery,” which I think everyone ends up having to read in school. It’s in all the anthologies. It would be a good one for your short story project, as a matter of fact! And I think you’d like this very much, too.

  7. Jeanne says:

    There was a small circle of female writers in the 40s, tending to excessive alcohol consumption and irony, who were my idols when I was in high school–Shirley Jackson was one, and Dorothy Parker and Elizabeth Bishop. There is a kind of irony about the title of this novel that I have always enjoyed.

    • Teresa says:

      I’m imagining the title in Merricat’s voice, with the addendum of “..and we always will.” Creepy.

      I went through a Dorothy Parker phase in high school. I worked her story “The Waltz” into a monologue for auditions. But it’s been ages since I read anything of hers.

  8. Christy says:

    I didn’t know Shirley Jackson was agoraphobic. That adds a whole new layer to my thoughts about this book and the Haunting of Hill House. I loved that the revelation about the family wasn’t the be-all, end-all of the story’s climactic moment. Too many books dangle their secrets from the beginning and the revelation of the secret is the only thing they have to offer in the end. There is no other narrative movement.

    • Teresa says:

      It was something she apparently struggled with late in life, and it certainly seems to inform this book.

      I liked the way the revelation was handled here, too. I kind of guessed it early on, but the secret was not at all the heart of the story. It just adds another layer to that already complex sisterly relationship.

  9. aartichapati says:

    I did this book on audiobook and it was SO good and SO creepy. I agree it is much more about the dangers of derangement than about the horrors of death. And so sad about how other people must pay for your mistakes.

  10. This remains the only Shirley Jackson I’ve read – and I loved it. The sisters were so fascinating as characters. Why I’ve not got around to reading more of her is a mystery!

    • Teresa says:

      There are so many authors I feel that way about! I want lot read lots more Jackson, but it’ll probably take me ages to get around to it. I do have a story collection of hers, so I’ll get there eventually.

  11. Lu says:

    This is a book I don’t think I ever would have read without blogging and it makes me so grateful I have good blogging friends to recommend amazing books to me. It’s one of my favorite reads since I started blogging and perfect for this time of year!

    • Teresa says:

      I knew about Jackson but not this particular book before blogging, so there’s a good chance it wouldn’t have occurred to me to read it either if it weren’t for all those blog reviews.

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