castle“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood.”

Recommended by a friend (or, as she put it, “randomly purchased and forced upon me by a personal hero of mine”), We Have Always Lived In The Castle is a book that I knew very little about. Shirley Jackson, the author, is also someone that I had barely heard of. She doesn’t appear on those lists of “must read books”, and is apparently unwelcome in classrooms. I had no idea what to expect when I opened up Merricat and Constance’s story.

In the large Blackwood house lives Mary Katherine (known as Merricat), her older sister Constance and their unwell, elderly relative, Uncle Julian. The story opens with Merricat doing her shopping in the village, getting stared at and having to endure comments from the villagers. It soon becomes clear that darkness surrounds the Blackwood family. One night, six years ago, all but Merricat, Constance and Julian were killed – poisoned in the family home by arsenic in the sugar bowl. Constance was arrested but later acquitted. However, ill feeling spread in the village and no one trusted the family again. Constance retreated into herself, never leaving the house again, instead hiding away, taking occasional tea with Helen Clarke, the one person she could still consider a friend, and looking after her uncle.

Out of the blue one day, their cousin Charles turns up and decides that he’s going to move in to help the sisters return to normality. However, his motives are soon revealed to be different than what he first suggests, and Merricat must embark on some drastic action to ensure that her remaining family stay safe.

Short at less than 150 pages, the book is nonetheless haunting, eerieness permeating the pages. You never really know what to think, and there’s a sense that there’s something there, just hiding out of sight between the sentences and under the adjectives that you’re missing. Merricat and Constance are both incredibly damaged from the trauma in their history, but express it in different ways. Merricat enjoys burying things and, even though she is eighteen, still believes in magic and comes up with inventive, imaginative superstitions to protect her and her family. Constance seems to act like nothing has ever happened, indulging her sister in her every whim, and playing the doting nursemaid to dotty Uncle Julian. She goes as far as the vegetable garden but that is it. She was released as innocent, but knows that no one in the village believes her story.

The book touches, as mentioned, on superstitions and the nature of magic, and what we have the power to believe. The idea of Merricat being a witch isn’t too farfetched, especially given that she is followed everywhere by her black cat Jonas, who seems to perfectly understand everything she says. There is a moment where Julian declares to Charles that Merricat died along with the rest of the family, and for one heart-stopping second you believe that that could actually be the case. Has Constance gone entirely mad and still imagines she has any family left?

I saw the twist coming from miles off, but it is still cleverly done. The ending is strange, and shows one how those old wives tales of haunted houses and evil witches come about. It’s an interesting book, perhaps worth reading just for the chilling sense that Jackson leaves you with, tailing off the novel just when you want to find out what happens next…