We Have Always Lived in the Castle – Shirley Jackson (1962, 146 pages)
Well, this was a deeply creepy read. Shirley Jackson’s final novel tells the story of eighteen year-old Merricat, living with her older sister Constance and Uncle Julian in self-imposed isolation, ever since Constance was found not guilty of murdering the rest of the family with arsenic. The townspeople don’t trust the verdict, and the family are shunned. Merricat’s days are filled with ritual, both domestic and talismanic of her own devising, with a threat of violence never far away [skip the first sentence if cruelty to animals is a trigger]:
“I found a nest of baby snakes near the creek and killed them all; I dislike snakes and Constance had never asked me not to. I was on the way back to the house when I found a very bad omen, one of the worst. My book nailed to a tree in the pine woods had fallen down. I decided that the nail had rusted away and the book – it was a little notebook of our father’s, where he used to record the names of people who owed him money, and people who ought, he thought, to do favours for him – was useless now as protection. I had wrapped it very thoroughly in heavy brown paper before nailing it to the tree, but the nail had rusted and it had fallen, I thought I had better destroy it, in case it was now actively bad, and bring something else out to the tree, perhaps a scarf of our mothers, or a glove. It was really too late, although I did not know it then; he was already on his way to the house.”
‘He’ is Cousin Charles, whose arrival disturbs the fragile balance within the house. Constance and Merricat have a close relationship, but not a healthy one. They are both somewhat infantilised, and are co-dependent in complex ways. Charles is interested in getting Constance out and about, and his hands on the family money. Jackson superbly racks up the tension without ever resorting to clichés. There are also moments of levity, mainly around Uncle Julian’s eccentricities and non-sequiturs.
“ ‘Jonas is asleep in the lettuce,’ I said.
‘There is nothing I like more than cat fur in my salad,’ Constance said amiably.
‘It is time I had a box,’ Uncle Julian announced. He sat back and looked angrily at his papers. ‘They must all be put in a box this very minute. Constance?’
‘He is dishonest. His father was dishonest. Both my brothers were dishonest. If he tries to take my papers you must stop him; I cannot permit tampering with my papers and I will not tolerate intrusion. You must tell him this Constance. He is a bastard.’
‘Uncle Julian –‘
‘In a purely metaphorical sense, I assure you. Both my brothers married women of very strong will. That is merely a word used – among men my dear; I apologize for submitting you to such a word – to categorise an undesirable fellow.”
We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a powerful read and an astonishing one. With its atmosphere of unspoken threat and insidious menace, all set within a ritualised domesticity, it is deeply disturbing. Undoubtedly a gothic masterpiece.