We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Published by Penguin Books on June 5, 1984 (originally 1962)
my rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Goodreads avg: 4.03 (as of 2018-10-25)
content warnings: Familial death, domestic abuse, agoraphobia
(I forgot to make notes on these so they’re from memory, alas)
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Merricat Blackwood lives on the family estate with her sister Constance and her Uncle Julian. Not long ago there were seven Blackwoods—until a fatal dose of arsenic found its way into the sugar bowl one terrible night. Acquitted of the murders, Constance has returned home, where Merricat protects her from the curiosity and hostility of the villagers. Their days pass in happy isolation until cousin Charles appears. Only Merricat can see the danger, and she must act swiftly to keep Constance from his grasp.
In this village the men stayed young and did the gossiping and the women aged with grey evil weariness and stood silently waiting for the men to get up and come home.
This was my first Shirley Jackson novel and it far exceeded any expectations I could have set for it. After reading The Woman in Black, I knew that gothic horror was a genre I could get into and I found myself eyeing some of Jackson’s works. Fate worked in my favor: my friend Jackie lent me her copy of We Have Always Lived in the Castle around the same time Destiny and I decided to buddy read it. Destiny and I split the book up into three parts to read over three days, but I truly believe I could have devoured this all in one sitting if I hadn’t been so busy during when I started it.
The truly incredible thing, to me, is how Jackson is able to write the most mundane things in such an eerie way. Nearly every scene is drenched with tension and I felt a sense of dread that continued to build as the book went on. Even at the start, our main character Merricat is going about her regular routine, running errands in the village. It’s an ordinary task, but it’s all just off enough to give the reader a sense of unease. I found myself absolutely terrified of the townspeople without even knowing why. And on it continues, every scene off-kilter enough that you can’t retain any sense of balance. The building anticipation makes it impossible to put down. I absolutely had to know what was going to happen next, and how the story would climax.
On top of the fantastic atmosphere that really drives the plot, I thought the characterization was great as well. Merricat is such a strange yet fun character to follow and everything is colored through her peculiar point of view. Constance, her sister, is intriguing and you can’t help but wanting to know more about her, even as you feel wary of her. Uncle Julian is certainly an unreliable character — it’s hard to piece together everything he’s saying, and you’re not quite sure what is true — and I liked him as well. The fourth human character (because we can’t forget Merricat’s pet cat Jonas, who I adored) is cousin Charles. I thought Jackson did a really lovely job of portraying the single mindedness of a child who truly believes someone is evil, and made Charles quite terrifying.
Overall, I honestly I don’t know if there’s a thing I would change about this book. I had unanswered questions, but it almost feels like they should remain that way. I genuinely think this story is a true masterpiece and I can’t wait to start in on Hill House, which I’m picking up from the library very soon!
I was chilled.
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(Blurb and cover courtesy of Goodreads.)