‘My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. 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’.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, Pg.1
It’s been a long time since I have felt like reading a fiction novel, which is strange for me as I so rarely read non-fiction. However, since moving to Hong Kong and starting a new job I have felt so bogged down in work that non-fiction – particularly short, digestible essays – have appealed more to me. However, I saw Shirley Jackson’s intriguing-looking novel in Kubrick and couldn’t resist buying it. I vaguely remember a resurgence of interest in this unassuming classic last year and it was this recognition that prompted me to pick up the book. Having dipped into the introduction I found myself drawn into the gothic nature with which Jackson writes. Although much of her acclaim was given posthumously, Jackson was an intriguing and introverted individual. Some of her stories were considered scandalous – I definitely want to read ‘The Lottery’, which appeared in the New Yorker amidst criticism and outrage – and We Have Always Lived in the Castle is known famously for its dark, gothic nature along with its strikingly different female leads.
‘I would not touch the ring; the thought of a ring around my finger always made me feel tied tight, because rings had no openings to get out of’.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, Pg.76
Set six years after a terrible incident that killed off almost all, but three, of the Blackwood family, Mary Katherine – known more familiarly as Merricat – narrates what could be considered a confession of sorts. She draws the narrator into an enchanting and mesmerising world. One that is glaringly, obviously and wholly one-sided. A world that is constructed entirely by Merricat’s thoughts and feelings. We are her intimate. We share in the secret she so flippantly and playfully reveals to us. However, it is not till much later in the story that we realise the full extent and significance of the clues she drops right from the beginning.
The three Blackwoods, Constance – the elder sister, Merricat and Uncle Julian, live a very isolated existence, preferring to stay within the boundaries of the family estate rather than venture into the hostile village that surrounds them. However, Merricat’s regular chore is to visit the village for the weekly shop and it is a task she detests, yet which is necessary to uphold the Blackwood name and presence – something she is very passionate about despite her underlying hatred and suspicion of everyone but Constance.
‘I thought that perhaps they were only pretending to play, because they were children and were supposed to play, but perhaps they were actually sent here to look for us, thinly disguised as children. They were not really convincing, I decided as I watched them; they moved gracelessly, and never once glanced, that I could see, at our house. I wondered how soon they would creep into the porch, and press their small faces against the shutters, trying to see through cracks. Constance came up behind me and looked out over my shoulder. “They are the children of the strangers”, I told her. “They have no faces”‘.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, Pg.132
However, the constancy and regularity of Merricat’s world is turned upside down when a distant relative arrives out of the blue. Charles is a larger-than-life character who comes into her serene calm like a bull in a china shop. He stops at nothing to get what he wants, which is a place at the Blackwood’s dinner table and a greedy, slimy grip on the Blackwood fortune. Although Merricat is acutely attuned to Charles’ true intentions, it is Constance’s vulnerability he prays on.
I don’t want to give too much away about this fantastical story but the remaining plot descends into chaos – a chaos that completely surprised and gripped me until the end. The magical, almost haunting, elements to this novel reminded me slightly of Angela Carter’s work. Words are used by Merricat to tremendous effect – they hold a great power for her, making her an even more intriguing character. There were also moments within the novel that made me question human behaviour and the power of ‘mob’ mentality. I look forward to exploring more of Shirley Jackson’s work in the future.