We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

we-have-always-lived-in-the-castle-coverThe one name in horror I’m recommended more than any other is Shirley Jackson. This is reckoned to be her best novel, so I picked up a copy. Here’s a review of a gothic horror modern classic for Halloween.

Published in 1962, We have Always Lived in the Castle is the story of the two remaining Blackwood sisters, Constance and Mary Katherine (Merricat). They live with their Uncle Julian in the large old family home. The other members of the Blackwood family died six years ago, poisoned by arsenic in the sugar for dessert. Constance was acquitted of the murder, but the shadow of guilt hangs over her. Suspicious of Constance, and resentful their late parents high-handedness, the local villagers treat the Blackwood sisters with simmering hostility. Then cousin Charles comes to stay, sniffing around the family safe, and their fragile, reclusive world begins to crumble.

The narration, from Merricat’s point of view, captures the paranoid, agoraphobic mood perfectly. Merricat is obsessive and painfully isolated from the outside world. She collects objects and performs her own form of magic, placing little fetishes about the family estate to ward off the sense of doom she feels. But Merricat’s paranoia isn’t completely unjustified. The hostility the villagers feel towards the family is real, waiting all the time to bubble up, and Merricat is acutely aware of that. The relationship between the sisters is close to the point of possessive interdependency—Constance does for Merricat the ordinary functions that she can’t cope with, whereas Merricat protects her sister from the threat of the outside using a mixture of her peculiar magic and impulsive violence.

The whole story, focused almost entirely around the once grand Blackwood house, is tensely gothic. Underneath Merricat’s idiosyncratic view of the world lies the truth, tantalisingly close. A masterful study in isolation, possessive family attachments and social resentment.

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