Book #71

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Living in the Blackwood family home with only her sister Constance and her Uncle Julian for company, Merricat just wants to preserve their delicate way of life. But ever since Constance was acquitted of murdering the rest of the family, the world isn't leaving the Blackwoods alone. And when Cousin Charles arrives, armed with overtures of friendship and a desperate need to get into the safe, Merricat must do everything in her power to protect the remaining family. 

As unreliable narrators go, Merricat Blackwood is up there with the best of them. Jackson’s opening chapter tells us all we need to know about her, even if we don’t realise this at the time. As she mundanely wanders the village, collecting provisions for her huge home which imposes over the small people, we are allowed to dip into her thoughts and inner motivations. What we find there is the true horror of this novel wrapped up within her skull.

We learn the Blackwood family are hated by the villagers, and always have been. As the village children taunt Merricat, and sing nursery rhymes about her and her sister Constance, we discover the rest of the Blackwood family have been killed by poison some years before by the hand of Constance. Only the two sisters remain, alongside Uncle Julian who was not taken by the poison, but instead lives in poor health due to the small amount he ingested.

Oddly, arriving home with Merricat brings a sense of peace and an understanding of how their lives work. Our protagonist likes her life to be precise; any change is an enemy, and anything which may threaten her precious status quo is to be vehemently feared. But of course, change is constant, and the arrival of cousin Charles sees Merricat’s neatly ordered life thrown into a chaos she struggles to handle.

The story’s mastery is in its nuance and subtleties. Jackson creates feelings of dread without explicit reasoning, and shows us a torn family, isolated and repressed by the actions of one of their own. Being witness to Merricat’s thoughts, which flick from loving to murderous, is a delectable privilege which allows us to commend or condemn as we choose.

They say the most terrifying of things are those which you cannot comprehend. Jackson’s account of the Blackwood family is terrifying for its characters and their instability rather than its plot. With tension and atmosphere practically grabbing your throat, she has created a masterpiece of gothic fiction.