James smythe examines We Have Always Lived In The Castle by shirley Jackson.
Shirley Jackson is an author who carries a large amount of mystique around her. She was a tremendous writer, unappreciated in her time. Her major contribution to the literary canon was her short story “The Lottery” (1948), which packed about as much darkness and tension into a few thousand words as it’s possible to manage. Her novelwriting career was slightly less lauded, if only because the books were, it’s safe to say, challenging: novels of psychological torment, of close and invasive horrors. Only in recent years have her novels gained the praise that they ought, mainly because of The Haunting Of Hill House (1959), one of the greatest horror novels of all time, and a key influence on many of today’s finest horror writers.
But she wrote a novel after Hill House, the final book she completed before her death. We Have Always Lived In The Castle is, somehow, the sum of all her previous works: it’s partly a gothic horror, partly a novel of psychological and agoraphobic torment, and partly a text that deals with the other major theme she became obsessed with – the persecution of otherness. All of which makes it sound far heavier than it is. Because it’s also a hugely deceptive book, a book which delights in the lies and torments it can put the reader through as they unpick the threads of the story for themselves.
The novel’s narrator is Mary Katherine Blackwood, known as Merricat, an 18-year-old girl living on her family’s estate with her sister, Constance, and their dying Uncle Julian. Julian is writing his memoirs, and it’s through these that we learn the torrid history of the Blackwood clan, focusing on the murder of Merricat’s parents, aunt and brother six years previously – a mass poisoning of which Merricat, Constance and Julian were the only survivors.
It’s a set-up that leads you to believe that the novel is possibly a murder-mystery, which it sort of is: that is one of the knotted threads that is unravelled over the course of the narrative. The other major thread involves Merricat’s cousin Charles, come to stay and clearly intent on finding the money left to the girls. It’s when Charles arrives that we start to question Merricat herself. She’s an unreliable narrator – all first-person narrators are, I think – but much of the book is spent finding out the extent of her unreliability. Does she know more about the past than she’s letting on? Was her sister responsible for murdering their parents? Is Charles quite what he seems? The deceit gets deeper and deeper as the novel unfolds.
The heart of the novel lies in the village near to the family home: a village full of people who distrust and dislike the Blackwood family. (It’s worth noting that Jackson’s husband, the critic Stanley Hyman, was Jewish, and apparently their family suffered anti-Semitic abuse during their life together, which peaked in tensions in the town in which they were living while Jackson was writing We Have Always Lived In the Castle.) It’s a novel that’s as much about personal and psychological tensions as it is about societal ones.
The horror in this book is pervasive. Castle is not built around jump-scares, but instead creates such a sense of creeping dread, of insidious nastiness, that it has lived with me longer than almost any other traditional horror I could care to mention. It’s as close to perfect as a book can get.