We Have Always Lived in the Castle – Shirley Jackson

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“I can’t help it when people are frightened,” says Merricat. “I always want to frighten them more.”
― Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Don’t let the cutesy drawings on the cover fool you… ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’ is a story of mischief, mystery, murder and malcontentedness, published in 1962. If you’d like to come on this journey with me, read on. If not, well, I’m sorry to say that that is not an option. Onward.

I’ve never read anything quite like this, and somehow I’d never heard of Shirley Jackson before picking up this book. I’m not big on horror, whether it’s movies, books, or anything. Ok, that’s an understatement. I really really hate the genre, but, from time to time, I’ve been known to give it a shot. This book was a fairly mild example, as in I wasn’t awake all night afraid of fictional things, but it still conveyed a unique, eerie message. Whether that message had a moral or not, I’m not sure. That may be up to you to decide.

‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’ follows the Blackwood family, a mysterious bunch with a questionable past. To be more specific, the remaining Blackwoods are the subjects of this tale. There is Julian Blackwood, an older man who suffers from arsenic poisoning, and is struggling to remember his past by recording it on paper, Constance Blackwood, the eldest of the two female protagonists, who holds a passion for cuisine and gardening, and her sister, Mary Katherine Blackwood (affectionately known as Merricat) who is visibly disconnected from the world she is in, longing for some deeper experience in some isolated place. The Blackwoods live their lives cautiously, careful not to further damage their reputation. You see, the family holds a dark secret that everyone knows of, but wouldn’t dare mention. Hatred is constantly released onto the family because of the vicious crime. The rest of the notorious Blackwood relatives died of arsenic poisoning some time ago, an unforgettable scandal. That, of course, was blamed on Constance, the only one who wasn’t affected, but then again, was she the only one? Could it not have been someone else’s fault?

This story, as you can tell, is chocked full of mystery and confusion. The characters have an odd manner of communicating, somehow whimsical and serious all at once. Another point is that Merricat is written as an 18 year old girl, and Constance 28, but it was very difficult for me to see them in that way. I pictured Merricat at 12 or 13, whereas Constance at 18. This novel is definitely an intellectual exercise. I spent time thinking about why everything was happening, as opposed to mindlessly reading as I think we all do. If you’re looking for something new, surprising and sinister, Shirley Jackson’s ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’ is right for you. It’s a quick read, but don’t underestimate it. That’s all for now. Thank you for reading, and hopefully you’ll consider this book the next time you see it!

-Mackenzie

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