We Have Always Lived in the Castle


Shirley Jackson




Date Reviewed:

February 5, 2022

was guilty of clicking on a link titled 20 Short Novels You Can Read in a Day. Later, I wanted to return to that website and reread it, so I did a search on "twenty short novels", and three different websites showed up; the original one I had visited, plus two new-to-me websites: one at Bookriot and the other at lithub. After browsing through all three websites, I noticed that one book appeared on all three of these lists: We Have Always Lived in the Castle. So I read it.

The story features Mary Katherine Blackwell, a girl that is perhaps 12 years old. She lives with her older sister Constance and her demented Uncle Julian in the big Blackwell manor house at the edge of town. The manor house sits on a large property that is fenced and gated to keep the riff-raff villagers from walking on the land. The Blackwells were a wealthy family, but a while ago the adults all died when they ate arsenic that had been hidden in the sugar bowl. (Uncle Julian had some sugar on his blackberries that fateful day, but apparently did not ingest enough to kill him). Mary Katherine, whom Constance affectionately calls Merrikat, did not have any sugar because she had been sent to bed that evening without any supper. Where the arsenic came from is never explained.

Mary Katherine lives an isolated life full of fantasy and magic. She nails objects to trees to create wards around the property; and she buries totems such as marbles or silver dollars in the ground, and thus creates magic that keeps everyone out. Mary Katherine imagines living on the moon, where everything is always happy and safe. Mary Katherine does not attend school, but she does walk into town twice a week to purchase groceries. At best, the villagers ignore her, but more often they will taunt her and make cruel remarks about her murdered family. Mary Katherineís only friend is her cat, Jonas. She tells herself that the vile opinions of the villagers mean nothing to her, but she does hear them and imagines that they were all dead.

The older sister Constance never leaves the Blackwell mansion. She looks after Uncle Julian, does the cooking, gardening and cleaning and sewing. The Blackwells have no worries about money because apparently there is a safe full of cash that will keep them funded for years to come. Constance is sunny and cheerful; when Mary Katherine voices dark thoughts, Constance will laugh and say "Oh Merricat, you are so silly!"

Uncle Julian is confined to a wheelchair, and Constance tends to his every whim. Julian is forever going on about all of his papers that he has collected, he is apparently going to write a book about the day of the poisoning, but never actually sets pen to paper.

It was not clear to me how long the three Blackwellís had remained in this static state inside their gloomy house Ė were the deaths just months ago, or years ago? Why didnít Constance go to prison if three people died? There is mention of Mary Katherine staying in an orphanage during the trial, but for how long I do not know.

Mary Katherine finds that a book she nailed to a tree has fallen away, and she is alarmed at the implications. Sure enough, their established, safe routine of existence is soon upset when Cousin Charles comes to live with them. Constance welcomes him into the manor house, and gives him Fatherís old room to sleep in. But Mary is upset by his presence, and considered him a ghost or a demon and tries various magic spells to drive him out. But to no avail, Charles stays on and tension between the two of them grows.

Perhaps when this story came out 1962 it was considered a shocking story of mentally ill people, but the big surprise about the admission of guilt regarding the poisonings that comes late in the novel was what I had assumed all along had happened. I expected a sense of foreboding and horror, but the feeling of creepy dread that comes with the best dark novels is lacking in this one. The Blackwells are not likeable, nor is the cruelty of the small town villagers unexpected. Even the distant relatives who occasionally visit and lamely try to help do not seem sincere. Without caring much for the characters, I was not much invested in their fate.

Although We Have Always Lived in the Castle is considered a classic, but I was not enamored by it.