We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, 1962
Published by Penguin Books
First paragraph: “My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.”
Book Rx: For an eerie and unsettling read.
I love reading Shirley Jackson. To me, she is quite simply the master of setting the scene. The worlds and moods in her books creep up on you and envelope you slowly, you’re not even aware of it happening. You just jump a foot when someone taps you on the shoulder while you’re immersed in one of her stories.
‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’ is about two sisters, Mary Katherine a.k.a. Merricat and Constance. They live with old Uncle Julian in the Blackwood property. “The people of the village have always hated [the Blackwood family],” but the sisters are now ostracized completely by a horrifying event that happened six years ago. Told in a taunting rhyme sung by the village children:
Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!
The book is told in first person by Merricat. Her tone varies; at times she sounds childish…
I liked my house on the moon, and I put a fireplace in it and a garden outside (what would flourish, growing on the moon? I must ask Constance) and I was going to have lunch outside in my garden on the moon.
… at times downright disturbing.
I wanted to run; if I could have run to the end of our land and back I would have been all right, but Constance was alone with them in the drawing room and I had to hurry back. I had to content myself with smashing the milk pitcher which waited on the table; it had been our mother’s and I left the pieces on the floor so Constance would see them.
Reading the book I eventually learned not to trust its unstable narrator. Things don’t seem quite right: Merricat’s obsession with things being the way they should be; the way she talks about her “safeguards” and buried treasure in the yard (a box of silver dollars, a doll buried in the long field, a book nailed to the tree), references to Thursday being her “most powerful day.” In the first paragraph alone, Merricat mentions her sister Constance twice.
Jackson expertly describes the strange dynamic between the Merricat and Constance (What really happened six years ago?), the small town and the townspeople’s small minds (the cruelty of narrow-minded characters seems to be a recurring theme in Jackson’s books).
‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’ is one of my favorites from Jackson and Merricat one of my top picks for Creepy Book Children. If you enjoyed this and would like a similar, shorter read try ‘Miriam’ by Truman Capote (found an online copy here).