Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Shirley Jackson is highly regarded for her suspense novels and short stories. What’s perhaps most remarkable about them is that they build tension and even horror without a lot of obvious violence. It’s about time this feature included her work, so let’s do that today and turn the spotlight on her last novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
The novel is told in first person from the point of view of eighteen-year-old Mary Katherine ‘Merricat’ Blackwood, who lives with her older sister, Constance, and their Uncle Julian, on a Vermont estate. As the story begins, Mary Katherine is going into the nearby village to buy food and other supplies. Right from the beginning, it’s obvious that something is very wrong. For one thing, it’s clear that she is not welcome in the village. In fact, she goes to great effort to avoid seeing people. Several people are unkind to her, and it’s apparent that no-one wants her in town more than absolutely necessary.
When Mary Katherine gets home, we meet Constance. Now it’s even clearer that something is terribly wrong in the family. Constance is afraid to leave the house, and will not speak to anyone other than her sister and her uncle. She’s the one who does the cooking, a lot of the cleaning, and so on. She also takes care of Uncle Julian, who’s elderly and in bad health.
The family is quite isolated, as much socially as anything else. And we can see in their interactions that something is very much ‘not right’ (more on that shortly). Little by little, we learn about the tragedy that isolated them six years earlier. It seems that three other members of the family were poisoned. There was no conviction, but the people of the village are convinced that one of the Blackwoods is a murderer. So it’s little wonder that the villagers want little to do with them. Still, Mary Katherine, Constance, and Uncle Julian have managed to make a life for themselves. Then, the outside world comes in. Charles Blackwood, a cousin to Mary Katherine and Constance, pays a visit. His visit touches off a series of events that ends in another tragedy.
This isn’t a traditional sort of mystery novel, where there’s a murder, the police investigate, and the killer is caught (or at least, we find out who the killer is). Rather, it’s a novel of psychological suspense, where we learn what happened through conversations that the Blackwood family members have. We also see the tragedies as filtered through Mary Katherine’s mind. This approach to telling the story means that the truth of what really happened is revealed slowly, and relies on the reader making the connections.
The members of the Blackwood family are all impacted severely by what happened. Along with the fact that they’ve been isolated, they’ve got their own psychological issues. Mary Katherine, for instance, has a number of rituals about nearly everything. And small things, such as whether she sees anyone, become omens for her.
Constance doesn’t leave the house. She’s a compulsive cleaner and homemaker, and refuses to see or speak to anyone but Mary Katherine or Uncle Julian. Although she’s older than her sister, it’s really Mary Katherine who tries to take care of Constance. She, Mary Katherine, leaves the house when it’s necessary, interacts with others, and so on.
Uncle Julian has his own psychological issues. He’s writing a book about the tragedy in the family, and is continually going over notes, reviewing chapters, and so on. And yet, even as he works on his project, he wavers between lucidity and what might be called a form of dementia.
Because of the psychological issues this family has, the reader must peel back the layers of what the members say and sometimes do to get to the truth about what happened six years earlier. In that sense, what is not said is almost as important as what the characters do say.
But the novel isn’t just about the Blackwoods. It’s also a portrait of an insular village with its own views of what happened. The villagers are not above insults, bullying, and shunning. And yet, there are also moments when some of them do try to reach out to the family. On the one hand, it’s unsettling to the other people in the town to have a possible murderer nearby. On the other, they’ve made life nearly impossible for the Blackwoods. This conflict adds a great deal of tension to the story, and it’s part of the reason for which Mary Katherine is fixated on making the family home – their castle – as safe from outsiders as possible. And the conflict spirals as the novel goes on. That, too, adds to the tension and suspense.
Because the novel is told from Mary Katherine’s perspective, the story sometimes shifts back and forth in time, as our thinking sometimes does. So, it’s not really a chronological, linear sort of novel. Readers who prefer a story that starts at the beginning and follows a sequential progression of events will notice this. That said, though, it’s clear (at least to me) what is happening in the present time, what is a memory, and what is simply a general thought.
The novel isn’t long (my edition clocked in at 214 pages), and Jackson is sparing in telling about exactly what happened six years ago. So, the reader is invited to ‘fill in the blanks.’ I usually try to avoid making comparisons when I analyze books, as each story is unique. But in this sense, the story is similar to some of Alfred Hitchcock’s films. Hints are given, layers are peeled away, and gradually the reader is told the truth, without violence, but with psychological unease.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle is the story of a very dysfunctional family with a very dark history. It takes place in a closed-in sort of village, and tells the story of tragedies that could have been averted (or, could they?). But what’s your view? Have you read We Have Always Lived in the Castle? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 27 March/Tuesday, 28 March – Death of an Old Goat – Robert Barnard
Monday, 3 April/Tuesday, 4 April – Peepshow – Leigh Redhead
Monday, 10 April/Tuesday, 11 April – Something in the Air – John Alexander Graham