I’ve loved Shirley Jackson since high school after reading “The Lottery” (as so many of us did). A brutal little story about how a seemingly ordinary small town filled with recognizable, everyday folk can – and will – turn on each other. Soon after that, inspired by a late night viewing of the incomparable The Haunting by Robert Wise, I checked out The Haunting of Hill House from my local library. After that, my little horror-loving mind was blown – changed forever by one of the most beautiful novels in the genre. A novel that will haunt you through palpable mood and tension, an unreliable protagonist, and an unforgettably atmospheric location – a ghost story that never contained a single ghost (probably – I’m still not convinced there wasn’t something knocking around that manor!).
Years went by, as did lots of horror media. I knew Jackson had more works, but I just never got around to reading them. And as one gets older, work and life get in the way of even our most beloved hobbies and it’s hard to stay caught up. I recently began writing again, inspired by my favorites and first true loves – horror, dark fantasy, and gothic drama. I thank Jackson and other literary giants for keeping my mind fertile enough to sprout my own small tales. By chance, this special novel was $1.99 on Kindle so it seemed like a sign. Time for more, no excuses!
This novel – Jackson’s last, unfortunately – is truly resplendent. Like so many of her other tales, this is set in a small New England town. It begins with magic, mystery, and a rumbling resentment all tied up in its 18 year old protagonist – Merricat Blackwood. One of the last members of a wealthy and eccentric family, Merricat lives with her beloved sister, Constance, and dear Uncle Julian. The rest of the Blackwoods are dead – poisoned by arsenic in the sugar bowl. But who did it and why?
The tale ropes one in, tight as can be, and Merricat offers us scant relief as the drama unfolds. She is fascinating – wicked and good, bitter and sweet, impulsive and methodical. She visits the village a couple of times a week to help Constance, who is an agoraphobic ever since she was accused of slaughtering the bulk of their family. She was acquitted by lack of evidence, but never fully exonerated – and those wicked villagers haven’t forgotten the difference. The villagers are cruel, spiteful, and Merricat suffers the most from them despite her youth which should imply innocence. She’s cautious around her enemies, all the while vividly imagining their punishment and/or deaths. She protects her family and home through a type of sympathetic magic that, real or not, she fervently believes in – burying coins, nailing her dad’s journal to a tree, whispering words of power before consuming them. All seems manageable, if strange, in the Blackwood home until the norm must inevitably be disturbed. Enter Cousin Charles, a brusque visitor not trying very hard to conceal that he’s sought out his distant family in order to get a slice of the fortune. A young man who reminds the sisters of their father, a man even Uncle Julian tiptoed around – a man who inspired both fear and awe, but we don’t really know more details than that.
Because that is one of the best parts of this novel, the mysterious past. Uncle Julian rambles about the events leading to the murders while Merricat and Constance offer small hints that there was something rotten in the Blackwood home. But what was it? Abuse or mistreatment, mental illness, or just good, old-fashioned envy spawned by favoritism – who knows? It doesn’t even matter, because it’s fun to examine the tantalizing clues. Given the effect of the past on the survivors, the speculation paints a terrifying picture. Merricat, Constance, and Uncle Julian are obviously scarred and damaged, but they hide it behind quirky personalities and a sense of whimsy which is both charming and sad. Despite their wealth, you get the impression these are isolated, lonely people who fought and struggled against their own kin and themselves – surviving, but for what? They’re comfortable, but are they truly happy? Either way, as the years go by they appear to have attained some sort of stability – until Cousin Charles’ belligerent greed threatens everything they hold dear.
We Have Always Lived In The Castle is quiet, New England horror at its best – a gothic tale with humor and sorrow, terror and love, seasoned with a dashes of classism and sexism. A tale of sisters, most of all, for these girls look out for each other with unselfish devotion. As someone with my own sisters, I appreciate their relationship – quirks and all. This is also a tale for women, how our own search for empowerment can be bolstered by the support of our fellow ladies (or, at least, the ladies in our life who truly do want the best for us). The Blackwood sisters love their home and its domestic charms, finding plenty of fulfillment without marriage or children. They (mostly) shun the thought of careers or adventuring into the greater world, but none of this hinders the principles of feminism. In the end, the Blackwood sisters chose their fate despite the wealth which would’ve offered so many options. Freedom of choice is, after all, what women have fought for generations to attain. So, even if we as readers hoped for more for Merricat and Constance, we shouldn’t begrudge them their version of happily ever after.
As an aside, I recently watched the film adaptation of We Have Always Lived In The Castle. Starring Taissa Farmiga and Alexandra Daddario, this is a gorgeous slow burn and a (mostly) faithful adaptation. I highly recommend this, as well, but it’s no substitute for the book. And at under 150 pages, who really doesn’t have the time to read that?
Enter the unusual world of Merricat Blackwood, listen to her tale – but beware, once you start and she casts her spells you won’t be able to stop until she’s done with you. And remember, sugar’s bad m’kay. 5/5 Stars – Perfection!