Book Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson is a book where nothing much happens. I originally picked up the book for a reading marathon in October, for Halloween, because it had been on a GoodReads list of spooky books. I found myself waiting for something, anything, to happen. The book only has four characters of any importance, five if you count the cat. The book was only slightly spooky to me but I have to assume it was placed on a list of spooky books because the two main female characters are utterly insane. You see, six years ago one of them killed their whole family.
The Blackwoods were a prominent family before they all died. They lived in a fine house and were well respected. But one evening all of them were murdered at the dinner table. It was arsenic in the sugar, which all of them sprinkled across the berries they were having for dessert. All of them except for Constance, who never used sugar, and her little sister Mary Katharine, who had been sent to bed without dinner. One of their uncles survived too, although Julian Blackwood’s health is ruined. Constance is arrested for the murder but was acquitted. Now the last of the Blackwood family lives in isolation up in their fine house. That is until Cousin Charles comes to visit.
Dear Cousin Charles is an ass and a money grubbing ass at that. His side of the family ruthlessly cut ties when the murder happened and refused to take care of Mary Katharine, nicknamed Merricat, while Constance was under arrest and Uncle Julian was in the hospital. Charles has blatantly come for the Blackwood fortune, of which the two girls are now the sole recipients. Constance, who is too afraid to venture beyond the land their house sits on, falls under his sway. Until now, Constance thought her little sister’s odd behavior and their little family’s isolation is perfectly normal but Charles introduces the opinion that the way they are living is wrong. It takes a big shock for her to see Charles’ true intentions.
The creepy aspect of the book comes from the younger sister, Merricat. She obviously has a mental illness and is delusional. She has taken to burying things around the estate in order to protect them and the house. It also took me to about page 60 to figure out that it was really Merricat who poisoned her whole family. Everyone just assumed it was Constance who did it because she is the one who does all the cooking. The younger Blackwood sister is creepy as hell and should probably be put in a padded cell before she can do something horrible again.
Probably the worst characters in the whole book are the villagers. Their cruelness is probably the most disgusting part for me. They taunt Merricat every time she goes to the village for food and constantly sing this horrid little rhythm about the death of her family. By the end of the book they’ve succumbed to the mob mentality and ransack the house, destroying everything they can get their hands on. It’s disgusting. I rarely wish fiction characters to rot in hell but I do for these bottom feeders.
The only part I can really pat the author on the back for is the ending. Kudos to Shirley Jackson for fleshing out what happens after the fire and when the girls return to their destroyed house, having nowhere else to go. A plausible ending with a lot of detail and I’m so glad we’re not left hanging wondering what Constance and Merricat will do with the rest of their lives. But, in the end the book was just okay to me. It was slow and only slightly creepy on a whole. Mary Katharine’s mental illness was the most unsettling part of the book and we just end up feeling sorry for Constance. A good, but not great, Halloween read.