In The Spotlight: Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Hello, All,

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

43 Comments

Filed under Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle

43 responses to “In The Spotlight: Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle

  1. I have reviewed this book on my own blog, Margot, and have always loved it! I know that a lot of fans of traditional detective fiction are not as enamored of it. One of the things that I think Jackson does so well is to portray the experience of a mob mentality. The story “The Lottery” is a great example of this. But I think the power of the climax of this novel exceeds even that shorty story. I remember how terrified I felt the first time I read the description of the aftermath of the fire. I’m so glad you’re bringing this novel to light. It deserves a resurgence of popularity!

    • I couldn’t agree with you more, Brad, that the book deserves an audience. And, yes, Jackson was so good at portraying the mob mentality. And in both this story and The Lottery, she used ordinary language to do the slow-reveal on the very disturbing things that actually happen. That, too, adds to the unease, in my opinion.

  2. Marianne Wheelaghan

    We Have Always lived in The Castle is one of my favourites. I love the tension Shirley Jackson creates between her words, as you say, what is left unsaid is as important as what is said. It’s gripping in a deliciously uneasy way. In that, it reminds me a little of Joyce Carol Oates short story Where Are you Going, Where Have you Been and Mary Hood’s How Far She Went. I think I may have to read it again now 🙂

    • I like the comparisons you make, Marianne. It takes skill to let the reader know right away that something isn’t right, so as to build that unease, but at the same time not reveal what it is. And that slow buildup of tension as the truth comes out adds so very much to the story, I think. Little wonder you like this one so much.

  3. Great choice Margot – Jackson was a remarkable author. Not always fun I suppose and often cruel but she certainly had a sense of humour

    • Thanks, Sergio. I agree with you about Jackson’s talent. She did look at the cruel side of human nature, as you say. Still, she had the gift of doing it without being gratuitous. Some of her work is really chilling, isn’t it?

  4. I’ve not yet read any of this author’s books but I have The Haunting of Hill House on my Classics Club Challenge list so I might try this one afterwards.

    • The Haunting of Hill House is deliciously spooky, WCRN. I hope you’ll enjoy it. And this one is regarded as some of Jackson’s really fine work. If you do read it, I hope you’ll like this one, too.

  5. One of my very favorite books. So original as is The Haunting of Hill House and The Lottery. What a sad life she led.

    • She really did, Patti. And I don’t blame you for ranking those among your top reads. As you say, all are original, and Jackson had a way of really exploring the dark side of human nature. A skilled writing style, too.

  6. I’m working my way through all her work (some of it rereading, some of it new to me) and I am just in awe at her ability to suddenly shift registers – from the apparently mundane to the deeply disquieting and sinister.

    • Yes! She was very skilled at that, wasn’t she, Marina Sofia? And that writing style had a way of jarring the reader without being jarring, if that makes sense. I think it’s interesting that you’re reading through her work; I hope you’ll do a post on it.

  7. I haven’t read this one (yet), but I did read The Haunting of Hill House and just thinking about it makes me shiver. She had a talent for the sinister. The reviews of the new biography of her make interesting, though very sad, reading.

    • I’ve heard that, too, Christine. I admit I’ve not (yet) read it, but I would like to see what the talk’s about. You’re quite right about the sinister, which you do see here. And yet, it’s got such a calm, peaceful veneer…at first.

  8. By coincidence I put this on my list of books I’d like to read this Spring.

  9. Keishon

    I loved this story!

  10. It’s funny, but I didn’t really think of this as a crime novel, despite the central crime. To me, it read like the fairy tale wicked witch story, only subverted so that we see it from the perspective of inside the witch’s cottage looking out. In fact, it’s the way Jackson subverts things in this one that impresses me most – her horror happens in bright sunshine, the castle is not dark and gloomy, but bright and airy. And our sympathies – well, are they given to the right characters? Merricat is unforgettable and to me, she is the origin story of the Gingerbread Witch… 🙂

    • Now, that’s an interesting way to look at it, FictionFan! I hadn’t thought of it quite that way, but I do see what you mean. And certainly Jackson turns the ‘witch’s story’ on its head a bit, doesn’t she? You’re right about Merricat, too. She is memorable, that’s for certain. It’s interesting, too, how Jackson makes us think about the characters in an unusual way.

  11. This sounds like a fascinating tale. I’m sad to say I’ve never read it but will add it to my list. Thanks for the introduction, Margot.

  12. Col

    Perhaps I ought to seek this one out, I’m intrigued now.

  13. I really enjoy books that make me think. I like how the author left room for the reader to put the pieces together. Adding to my TBR.

  14. Margot, I have read a few of Shirley Jackson’s short stories and those were captivating but so intense that I was squirming in my seat, so to speak.

  15. Just recently I tried to listen to an audio book of this Jackson novel, but I had to quit. Bernadette Dunne was the narrator, and I just hate listening to her voice. Unfortunately for me, she’s a regular with Random House Audio, so she’s in a lot of work. To make Mary Katherine sound like a scared teen, Dunne used this halting, squashed voice that, quite honestly, sounded like a baby straining in his diaper.

    • Oh, GtL, what a fabulous way to describe that voice! You should try your hand at fiction writing. And it is a shame, too, that you felt that way. The story itself is a classic, and I think if you hadn’t been distracted, you might have been able to enjoy the story. If you haven’t experienced it yet, I hope you’ll give it another go…perhaps in another format…

      • I’m definitely going to read a hardcopy for sure. I love Jackson, which is why I wouldn’t let her story get mangled. I do write fiction, but suffer from chronic anxiety, so doing it is harder than it needs to be. I miserably dragged myself through an MFA program. Also, who is Sergio? 😄

        • Sorry about the name, GtL – I’ve fixed it. At any rate, I do recommend trying a hard copy before you decide how you feel about We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I’ll be interested in what you think of it if you do. And you’re right; writing fiction is hard, no matter what the circumstances.

        • Lol, I thought maybe it was an expression! Like, “what in the Sam Hell!” That sort of thing! 😂

  16. tracybham

    I do want to read this, and soon. I never have read anything of hers other than The Lottery because I considered her writing would be too tense for me. Probably it is, but I am still going to try some more of her writing.

  17. This book creeped the Bejasus out of me, to use a delicate term. She had such an ability to write atmosphere and tension.

    • Oh, she sure did, Moira!! And use any term you want; it’s a very creepy novel, with a a very eerie atmosphere. And I think it’s made all the more so by her clever blending of the eerie with the mundane.

  18. I’m remiss in overlooking Shirley Jackson’s novels, Margot, and feel now a sense of urgency to ameliorate that omission. Thanks for an enticing review!

    • There’s never, honestly, time to read everything, Matt, no matter how dedicated one is. If you do read Jackson’s work at some point, I hope you’ll enjoy it .

      • I’ve read and enjoyed Shirley’s amazing short stories, Margo, I’ve always held a probably unfair prejudice that the art forms aren’t necessarily complementary. More than a few times this bias has fed me a dish of crow. You’ve persuaded me that such is likely to be the case this time, as well.

        • I think we all have biases like that, Matt. If you try her novels, I hope you’ll enjoy them. And I’ll be interested in whether you think they are the equal of her short stories (which I agree are memorable).

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