We Have Always Lived in the Castle – Shirley Jackson

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. … 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 my family is dead.” (page 1)

Title: We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Written by: Shirley Jackson
Genre: Thriller, Mystery
Publisher: Viking Press
Publication Date: 1962
Paperback: 214 pages

(In honor of the movie which premiers at 3PM today at the Los Angeles Film Festival,  here is my review for Shirley Jackson’s final and haunting novel)

There was arsenic in the sugar bowl, and everyone in the Blackwood family except for Mary Katherine (Merricat) and her sister Constance was poisoned. Now the sisters live in the family’s secluded mansion with their uncle who miraculously survived the arsenic poisoning, but is cursed to live out his days as an invalid. Constance was accused of the murders and, although acquitted, the townspeople feel nothing but hate for the Blackwood sisters and their uncle. The Blackwoods’ stay far away from town and only Merricat walks there twice a week to buy the things her family needs. They are mostly content with their lives until an estranged relative appears at their broken door step and demands to stay.

Shirley Jackson’s book haunts me.

While on the outside this appears to be a simple book about two sisters and the antagonistic town in which they live, there is a much more sinister and dark story lurking behind the child-like narrative.

Merricat is eighteen, but she acts more like a ten-year-old. She daydreams about living on the moon, plays dress-up once a week – always on the same day – and follows “magical” rules she sets for herself.

Constance is twenty-eight, and at the beginning of the book is contemplating leaving the Blackwood mansion to visit town for the first time in six years – the first time since the trial. Constance is the sole caretaker of disabled Uncle Julian because he believes Merricat is dead, and therefore will not except help from her. (Although, I doubt Merricat would have helped him anyway)

When Uncle Julian was poisoned, his memory was damaged and he frequently asks if the poisoning really happened. It’s very important to him that it did happen as he has devoted his remaining days to discovering the murderer.

We hear the story of what happened the day of the poisoning from Uncle Julian, but as he is prone to making things up when he can’t remember what truly happened, the reliability of his narrative is questionable.

The mystery of who killed the Blackwoods’ was completely obvious yet surprising because I was hoping for a different answer.

The first time I read this I misunderstood a line that came after the reveal and thought there was a double plot twist. When I reread that section, I was disappointed to find this was not the case.

I actually like my idea better, but anyway…

This is definitely a book for older readers, although (as you’ll see in the Cautions) the writing for this work is beautiful and not at all graphic, the simple, and sometimes offhand manner in which Jackson writes about death, murders, and violence gave me chills when I read it.

I highly recommend this book to more mature readers who enjoy stories primarily focusing on character or horror and wouldn’t mind a bit of a mystery thrown in.

For More Information about the Book and Author Click: HERE

Age Range: 13 and up

Cautions – *Contains Slight Spoilers*

Violence: Four of the Blackwood family members are murdered while Uncle Julian is left paralyzed with a faulty memory because of the poison. The day of the murders is described in haunting detail by Julian who is trying to figure out who committed the crime. Merricat fantasies – sometimes quite violently – about killing, or seeing people dead and has an extensive knowledge of poisonous plants which she shows off every once in a while. Part of the Blackwood house burns down. Villagers throw rocks through the windows and tear apart the house. During this time, Constance and Merricat are chased and headed by villagers, but manage to escape. Several mothers talk about the Blackwood sisters eating children, and upon overhearing this Merricat wonders if she could eat a child. The wording in this book is neither gory nor violent, yet Jackson uses such haunting writing that makes the book more intense than one would expect

Sensuality: For devious reasons, Charles attempts a romantic relationship with Constance. However, this relationship hidden from our point of view character, Merricat, (and me, until I read a plot summary) so one must read between the lines to see the relationship.

Profanity: b—–d is said several times.

Other: Merricat practices her own form of magic which involves burring items, saying – or not saying – certain words, and a strict set of rules around a multitude of things.

Personal Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 stars
Cleanness Rating: 3 ½ out of 5 stars

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