Well it took me long enough to get round to reading this gothic style classic from Shirley Jackson. I had been assured that I would love it – and I did. I love the quirky, unexpectedness of Shirley Jackson’s writing – the atmosphere of slight chills that stops well short of actual terror is perfect. I have previously read The Haunting of Hill House, and a collection of stories and essays ‘Let me Tell You’. I am even surer now, that I need to continue reading more Shirley Jackson.
I feel as if almost everyone has read We Have always Lived in the Castle already – and yet – in case there is anyone who hasn’t I will attempt to write this without spoilers. Right from the beginning the reader is enticed to read further by the voice of Merricat Blackwood.
“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 our family is dead.”
Merricat (Mary Katherine) is eighteen years old; she lives on the Blackwood estate with her older sister Constance and their uncle Julian. There were once seven Blackwoods living in the house a little way outside the village, until six years earlier arsenic in the sugar saw off four of them. Constance was acquitted of the murders, and returned to live in seclusion at the Blackwood house. Of the Blackwood household, only Merricat goes down to the village, once a week to buy groceries, where she comes up against the hatred and suspicion of the villagers. For years, Constance has been unable to go beyond the front steps of the house, feeling more comfortable hidden from the world behind the walls of the Blackwood house. Julian meanwhile spends each day pouring over his notes of the Blackwood case, ruminating over and over about what happened, determined to one day have a book finished about all that happened. Merricat seeks to protect her adored big sister from the spite of the villagers, with their nasty little digs and childish rhymes.
“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!”
That childlike rhyme – is repeated a few times throughout the novel – I really liked the effect it creates – the words can’t help but echo throughout the novel, creating a wonderful sense of unease.
Soon we realise that Merricat is very superstitious, deeply attached to her rituals and her cat. Merricat feels she must do all she can to keep evil from their home; she has special words to keep change at bay. Outside the house near to the river – is the place where Merricat takes herself off to sometimes. The unwavering quiet and simplicity of their life keeps Merricat calm, she likes and understands the small world she inhabits. She loves Constance and daily gives herself the task of being nicer to Uncle Julian. Change is coming however, Merricat senses it, and soon Cousin Charles comes to the house – which sees so few visitors.
Merricat is dismayed by Cousin Charles, unsettled by his friendship with Constance; while knowing he is no friend to her. Poor Merricat can’t help her bad temper, she shows her suspicions of him, incurring Charles’ anger. Under Charles’ exacting eye, poor old Uncle Julian is banished to his room to eat his meals. The change that Charles brings becomes frightening and irreversible.
“Eliminating Charles from everything he had touched was almost impossible, but it seemed to me that if I altered our father’s room, and perhaps later the kitchen and the drawing room and the study, and even finally the garden, Charles would be lost, shut off from what he recognized, and would have to concede that this was not the house he had come to visit and so would go away.”
I thoroughly enjoyed this creepy little tale. Those of you who don’t like horror stories need not worry about this story being too much – the mood is unsettling rather than out and out terrifying. Its small details that Shirley Jackson excels at – the cellar full of preserves, Constance’s pride in her kitchen, the thoughts that run through Merricat’s head – that help create the quirky feel that sits underneath the creepiness.