We Have Always Lived In The Castle By Shirley Jackson: Book Review
An oldie but a good, yet someone one of Shirley Jackson's novels that evaded me until adulthood, We Have Always Lived In The Castle caught my attention hearing several years ago there had been talks for a film adaption of the slim novel from the 1960's.
Still holding up today as one of the creepiest things to cross my reading list, Jackson's talent for horrific tales that are more mysterious than flat out gruesome, We Have Always Lived In The Castle follows the aftermath of the Blackwood family six years after a terrible incident had taken place in their family home where the entire family was poisoned at the dinner table and passed, excluding Uncle Julian who survived the incident, Constance who was accused of the murders saying that she poisoned the meal with her knowledge of local poisonous plants that grew nearby; and the strange girl Mary Katherine who was being punished that evening and sent to bed without dinner.
With Constance taken away to be tried for the murders, Mary Katherine was sent to a local orphanage while Uncle Julian recovered and the villagers never let themselves forget about the incident at the Blackwood estate to this day still picking on the family whenever Mary Katherine wanders into town two days a week as Constance has agoraphobia since being returned home.
While in town, Mary Katherine is often harassed and threatened, while others just keep away from the creepy teenager that reminds them of what had taken place years before.
While she tries to keep her spirits up, she often imagines killing people around her, at first coming off as a form of self defense, a little game she calls it. Thinking that if everyone in the village was dead she could just help herself to what she needs and not have to face the harassment each week and the scrutiny that her sister may have had something to do with the murders of the family.
Six years before at a family dinner, everyone seated had died from being poisoned, except for Uncle Julian who had survived but remained very ill, Constance who was the prime suspect for the poisoning after preparing the meal and suspiciously washing out the sugar dish before the police arrived claiming there was spider in the dish, and Mary Katherine who was being punished and took her meal in her bedroom.
Merricat, Merricat, Would You Like A Cup Of Tea; No She Says You Will Poison Me
The village children have grown up around the legend of the Blackwood estate and believe the notions of their parents that someone in the house had gotten away with murder. They believe that Mary Katherine is a witch and that she is protecting her murderess sister behind the walls of the family farm.
The village children taunt Mary Katherine with a rhyme about her sister serving poisoned sugar in the tea, and Mary Katherine, who is now known to be nicknamed Merricat by her sister, is part of the lyrics of the song. Only once does Mary Katherine ask a village to tell her children to stop tormenting her family and the woman halfheartedly tells the children to stop, secretly enjoying the torment.
The villagers have taken up abusing Mary Katherine when she comes to town for groceries and to get books from the library. Only a woman that sells her coffee shows any kindness. The locals have their superstitions, and even the children have a rhyme made up about Constance getting away with murder.
Talismans And Magic
When an unexpected cousin arrives to the manor after six years, claiming to want to see Uncle Julian, he is quickly befriended by Constance, whom seems to see no harm in letting him stay.
Mary Katherine however feels that he is an evil demon and that he has come to challenge the family is some way and that they are all in terrible danger. When she lays outside in her garden having conversation with her cat whom Mary Katherine feels talks back and tells her stories that were passed on by its own mother- it is revealed from the cousin rooting around the estate and its grounds on the farm, Mary Katherine after her return from the orphanage had a habit of collecting belongings from the dead family members and burying them out in the yard or nailing them to tree trunks.
The cousin is outraged by this behavior and even more so when he digs up a hole Mary Katherine made in the yard that was filled with silver coins. He scolds Constance for not keeping a better hold on her and allowing this nonsense and then brings it to the attention of Uncle Julian who makes an odd remark about Mary Katherine being dead since being sent to the orphanage.
Whatever the truth is with Mary Katherine, she finds power in her talismans and trinkets and feels that having her cousin in the house is a threat to the remaining members of the family so she creeps upstairs and sets fire to bunch of Uncle Julian's papers.
Although everyone escapes outside, Uncle Julian dies from what is presumed to be his heart giving out, and the two sisters hide in a lofty treed area and discuss "this was like what Mary Katherine had done before." As they talk again about her knowledge of deadly plants, it is revealed that Constance had passed this knowledge on to Mary Katherine, but it was Mary Katherine that poisoned the sugar dish at dinner specifically knowing that Constance who she loved so dearly and would always protect her, refused to add sugar to her tea.
When the few friends that family has begin to gather again for meals at the remains of the Blackwood home, Mary Katherine plans to "do them all the same," for good measure.
When it is revealed that Mary Katherine was the killer and her sister had taken the blame for her, it makes us wonder how much did Constance know of the plan going in since she had educated her sister on poisonous plants?
What were the papers that Uncle Julian had in his possession? Did this reveal the truth that Constance was protecting Mary Katherine?
We Have Always Lived In The Castle is mystery at its best in typical Shirley Jackson style. Short enough in its page count that we never know the whole backstory of why Mary Katherine planned these murders, why her sister was so set on protecting her, and what happened beforehand other than the village being jealous of a wealthy old family and overjoyed at the news of the bad things that had befallen them.
With the suggested insanity of Mary Katherine as well as the whispers of witchcraft with her conversations with the cat, and wishing that she could turn everyone into corpses as she walks the street; this tale of an isolated family and mysterious circumstances really puts a chill into the heart of readers even after all these years.