How I Got Here: I have loved Shirley Jackson ever since I first read “The Lottery.” In recent years, I have been seeking out opportunities to read all of Jackson’s works, and have not yet been disappointed (I read The Haunting of Hill House a few years ago). She is a master, and I want to read everything she wrote. Also, this book satisfies a task for the Fall Reading Challenge, as well as the Readers Imbibing Peril (R.I.P.) challenge. I read this book for Dewey’s Read-a-Thon.
The Book: Goodreads’ synopsis:
Taking readers deep into a labyrinth of dark neurosis, We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a deliciously unsettling novel about a perverse, isolated, and possibly murderous family and the struggle that ensues when a cousin arrives at their estate.
My Synopsis and Critique: Jackson’s novel is narrated by Merricat Blackwood, a teen-aged girl who immediately proves herself to be a strange young lady, professing her likes (her sister Constance and death-cap mushrooms) and dislikes (washing herself and noise) in the opening lines. As the story begins, Merricat tells the reader that she comes from a wealthy family that lives on the outskirts of a small village. She also tells the reader that most of her family is dead.
Right away, readers know something is off. She then shows that everyone in the village hates her family; as she buys groceries and walks back home, she is harangued by both the young and old of the village. One man in a diner asks if she will be moving away soon, and is very disappointed and rude when she replies in the negative. As she walks by, the village children sing a song while they play:
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!
So, I’m wondering, what’s the deal? Merricat is just a teenager, and everyone hates her! It has to be something connected to this morbid children’s rhyme…
Once Merricat gets home, readers learn that her sister Constance never leaves their gated property. She is older, and yet she lets her younger sister deal with the hatred of the village. She seems to be terrified of people, an agoraphobe. Yet, still I don’t know why, though it definitely seems connected to the children’s song.
In the second chapter, it is then made clear: in the recent past, Constance was arrested and acquitted for the murder of her entire family, who were poisoned via sugar sprinkled on their breakfast of blackberries. The only survivors were Constance, Merricat, and their Uncle Julian, who is unwell and so obsessed with the murderous event that he spends all of his days recording notes on the sequence of events leading to the deaths.
More information is revealed as the story moves, and throughout I felt constant pity for the sisters who are locked up in the house to avoid the black mark that society has placed on them. Reporters and villagers are kept away by the large fence, and Merricat sets up her own alarm system to alert her of intruders. Poor Merricat. While Constance manages the house, Merricat is allowed to run wild and lives a fanciful, imaginative life full of superstitions and conversations with her constant companion, Jonas the cat. Merricat is a lot like Lewis Carroll’s Alice, lonely and strange, except for her fixation on death and murder. She hates the world: “What place would be better for us than this? Who wants us, outside? The world is full of terrible people.” Often, I contemplated whether or not her life is similar to that of the children of O.J. Simpson and Michael Jackson–constantly surrounded by ill-will towards family members.
The story goes on with shocking plot and character twists, and once their cousin Charles moves in, everything changes and more is revealed about the dark past and present of the Blackwood sisters.
I found this novel to be a masterpiece of gothic horror–it made me think, I sympathized with very unconventional characters, and my jaw dropped at some points. I highly recommend this, and all of Shirley Jackson’s works.