Shirley Jackson is best known for her short story ‘The Lottery’ and the novel ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ that is considered the best haunted-house story till date. It has also been made into a movie, twice. Published in 1962, ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’ was her final work. Jackson died shortly thereafter in 1965. She was just 48.
The Blackwood girls, Mary Katherine, also known as Merricat, and Constance, and Uncle Julian are the last surviving members of a grand old family. The rest of the clan were all murdered. Someone put arsenic in the sugar bowl and the family added it to their dessert. Merricat survived as she had been sent to her room before supper and Constance didn’t have sugar. Uncle Julian only took a little so he didn’t die even though it led to tons of health issues later on.
Constance is believed to have been behind it all because she cleaned the sugar bowl before the police arrived. There was a spider in it, she said. The three, and a cat named Jonas, live in the castle where the massacre took place, with only Merricat going into town every now and then for groceries and books.
The story is basically about how the three of them live their lives on a day-to-day basis, isolated from the rest of the town folks and hated (also somewhat feared) by them too. Then a cousin arrives. Charles claims to be worried about them and just visiting but he never leaves, especially after he finds out that the girls keep a lot of cash in the house. While he warms up to Constance, Merricat hates having him around and tries to get rid of him. That eventually complicates things even more.
Narrated from Merricat’s perspective, we only get a sense of what she sees and feels. But she’s neither an amicable person nor a reliable narrator. She hates everyone she meets and though there are many characters in the book, they are all portrayed in an unfavorable light. The mystery is easy enough to figure out with only one main twist a little more than halfway into the story. What makes it charming and creepy is the claustrophobia-inducing setting. You feel trapped in a castle with three eccentric characters, one of whom seems troubled and determined to go to any length to protect her family. There isn’t anything supernatural in this book but you get the feeling that something’s lurking somewhere all through. It spooks you and makes for a compelling read.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Published in 1962 by The Viking Press
The current Penguin Edition published in 2016
(For the 70th Anniversary of Penguin Classics)
Pages: 146, Paperback