Shirley Jackson is best known for The Haunting of Hill House and has a reputation for scary stories. I’m not keen on stories that have a net effect of making me more afraid of the dark, but We Have Always Lived in the Castle presents a different kind of horror. Mary Katherine and Constance Blackwood live with their uncle in a grand mansion at the edge of a town filled with fearful and envious people. The reader understands, as the Blackwoods do, that their only security lies in seclusion. Between mounting tension with the town and the unexpected arrival of their grasping cousin, it is clear their security cannot last indefinitely.
[NOTE: As the suspense of the story is entirely dependent on not knowing when or how this dam will break, if you have a copy of this work that includes Jonathan Lethem’s introduction DO NOT READ IT before the book. When he discusses WHALitC, he dissects it point by point to thoroughly and completely spoil it for anyone who might be reading it for the first time.]
The story is told through the eyes of Mary Katherine, “Merricat”, who is 18, but seems more like a child. Her sister, Constance, is older and assumes a motherly role to keep her clean and well-fed. Constance also tends to their ailing Uncle Julian. The shadow over the house is due to the deaths of several members of the Blackwood family, who died of poisoning. Constance was arrested and acquitted of the crime, but the villagers still believe her a murderess and this, partly, explains their distrust of the house.
Mary Katherine is a fascinating narrator. Her voice is unsettling due to its fluctuations between innocence and cruelty. At times she repeats herself, harping on things she finds particularly relevant or galling, e.g. the Rochester house is always mentioned with the parenthetical that it should have belonged to Constance by right. This isn’t sloppy repetition on Jackson’s part so much as a methodical building of a character who fixates on the same details as she goes about her routines. I clarify this because the last review I wrote (The Night Circus), heavily criticized Morgenstern for her repetitive use of ‘perfect’ and its synonyms. The world created by Jackson in WHALitC is not some sprawling and miraculous circus: it is limited by Mary Katherine’s lonely and isolated life. Each day at the Blackwood mansion follows an established itinerary; each day is a study in isolation. When Cousin Charles arrives at the mansion and upsets the routine, Mary Katherine hardly knows what to do with herself:
“I wondered about going down to the creek, but I had no reason to suppose that the creek would even be there, since I never visited it on Tuesday mornings […]” (109)
The sparse repetitive language becomes a reflection of their sparse repetitive lives. The simplicity of the phrasing creates a mood. Jackson does this so skillfully that anything out of the ordinary stands out to the reader as much as to Mary Katherine. When Cousin Charles arrives, he upends their lives and the reader knows this will only bring calamity while also looking forward to a change in the pace of the book. This push-pull effect hooks the reader and makes the book difficult to put down. Happily, it reads quickly enough to finish in a single sitting.
Cousin Charles is also a frustrating presence because he so easily fools everyone except Mary Katherine, who cannot understand why anyone is giving him the time of day. She even regards her cat, Jonas, as an occasional traitor on this front:
“Jonas left me and went to sit in the doorway and watch them. ‘Jonas?’ Charles said, and Jonas turned toward him. ‘Cousin Mary doesn’t like me,’ Charles said to Jonas. I disliked the way he was talking to Jonas and I disliked the way Jonas appeared to be listening to him.” (96)
The slow creeping horror of the novel is the wait for the axe to fall. Mary Katherine can do little to protect her family or her house, but she does what she can with small bits of mental magic. She buries amulets and thinks up protective words (so long as no one utters them, they will be safe). Because it is spelled out in the first few pages that something disastrous will happen, the reader watches these amulets as carefully as she does, waiting for the cue that it’s all about to crumble.
“Charles had only gotten in because the magic was broken; if I could reseal the protection around Constance and shut Charles out he would have to leave the house. Every touch he made on the house must be erased. […] I polished the doorknob to our father’s room with my dust cloth, and at least one of Charles’ touches was gone.” (99)
I never thought the idea of a character wandering a house and touching things could be so eerie. But through Mary Katherine’s narration, this simple act of establishing a presence within a house becomes an act of violence. The tension mounts unbearably into the climax.
Translation: Read it, and it’s okay if you read it at night because it isn’t that sort of horror. However, the climax will make it hard for you to sleep at some point, no matter when you read it.