“All our land was enriched with my treasures buried in it, thickly inhabited just below the surface with my marbles and my teeth and my colored stones, all perhaps turned to jewels by now, held together under the ground in a powerful taut web which never loosened, but held fast to guard us.”
TITLE & AUTHOR: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
GENRE: Gothic Fiction/Mystery/Horror
PUBLISHED : October 31st 2006, by Penguin (first published 1962)
MY RATING: 5/5
It took me a while to write the review for this short book, because it’s left a deep impression on me. I don’t even know how to categorize it, because technically it isn’t horror, nor mystery, perhaps Gothic fiction is the best description, though a word that is not even a genre keeps popping in my mind when I think of it, and it’s devastation. It’s one of its themes, and it’s what it did to me. It’s a rare find to stumble upon a book that leaves such a deep impression, and that is why it deserves its classics status.
“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.”
The story is narrated by Mary Katherine, or Merricat, who lives with her older sister Constance and their disabled uncle Julian on their Blackwood estate, separated from the rest of the little town by distance, class, woods, and a thick wall made of fear and hate. The reason for this is that until six years ago they were a family of seven, and then one night four of them died of arsenic poisoning, the same thing that left uncle Julian crippled and mad.
“Fate intervened. Some of us, that day, she led inexorably through the gates of death. Some of us, innocent and unsuspecting, took, unwillingly, that one last step to oblivion. Some of us took very little sugar.”
Constance was immediately blamed, because she was the one preparing the food that night, and the only one who didn’t take any sugar. She was acquitted and returned home, but what remained of their family was never the same. The hate and envy the townsfolk always felt towards the rich, secluded, upper-class family was multiplied tenfold after that event, creating a barrier between them that made the Blackwood estate a safe haven for the family and the town a minefield for Merricat, who was the only one left able to pick up groceries and library books. The hate and segregation towards Blackwoods grew so much that the local kids invented a taunting song.
“Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!”
If, by any chance, you feel sympathy for Merricat at this point, you are wrong my friends. She is the most disturbing character I’ve ever had the chance to encounter in literature. Merricat obviously exhibits signs of some mental illness, severe psychopathy and sociopathy. She is the reason this little book is so interesting, because Shirley Jackson created a character that will haunt your dreams.
“I would have liked to come into the grocery some morning and see them all, even the Elberts and the children, lying there crying with the pain of dying. I would help myself to groceries, I thought, stepping over their bodies, taking whatever I fancied from the shelves, and go home, with perhaps a kick for Mrs.Donell while she lay there. I was never sorry when I had thoughts like this; I only wished they would come true.”
All that put aside, I don’t think you will hate Merricat, I didn’t. All three of them are very disturbing in their own way, especially Constance, who unlike the other two isn’t preoccupied with murderous hate or maddening obsession, but with pure denial. She is a Stepford wife. Uncle Julian is left so damaged by arsenic that you can’t really tell what is him and what is the madness brought upon him, I can’t wait to see Crispin Glover in the role for which he’s perfect. Back on the topic of Merricat, she has a side that couldn’t really be described as soft, but more of a protective one, towards her sister and uncle; her imagination runs wild both ways, towards hating the outsiders and even more strongly towards protecting what’s left of her family. She buries marbles, money and her teeth on the estate grounds as protection talismans; she invents magical protection words that give her power over situations and people; she imagines living on the Moon with her family, the only place they could be truly alone and content.
“On the moon we have everything. Lettuce, and pumpkin pie and Amanita phalloides. We have cat-furred plants and horses dancing with their wings. All the locks are solid and tight, and there are no ghosts.”
Their safe haven becomes endangered when their cousin Charles suddenly decides to pay them a long and unannounced visit. Constance does her Stepford thing, inviting him in like they have guests visiting them every day, but Merricat senses danger, and focuses all of herself on the protection of her family and deep, pure hatred towards Charles.
“I was thinking, I could turn him into a fly and drop him into a spider’s web and watch him tangled and helpless and struggling, shut into the body of a dying buzzing fly; I could wish him dead until he died. I could fasten him to a tree and keep him there until he grew into the trunk and bark grew over his mouth. If he was under the ground I could walk over him stamping my feet.”
This book is one huge quote, the writing of Shirley Jackson is so haunting and beautiful that I wasn’t able to put this damned book down, even though it woke some major unsettling feelings in me. I am extremely looking forward to the movie adaptation later this year, because I think the cast is perfect, but I’m still wondering if they will do justice to the magnificent creations of Shirley Jackson, because that is the power-line of this novella – the characters. As I’ve said, this is not horror or mystery, it is an exploration of human mind – its power to create a parallel-like reality and its capability of deep, inhuman hate. The hate that gains immense strength in numbers.
“I am going to put death in all their food and watch them die.”