“We Have Always Lived in the Castle” by Shirley Jackson (published by Penguin Books)

Murder, hate and more in a tale of horror and mystery

Chapter 1 – Mary Katherine Blackwood, 18, goes unwillingly into the village twice a week for groceries and library books, unwillingly because “The people of the village have always hated us”. And she wishes they were all dead. “I would have liked to come into the grocery one morning and see them all… lying there crying with the pain and dying”. She would step over their bodies.
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Chapter 2 – Back home, her family house is isolated out of sight of the village and visitors are discouraged. Father built a wire fence to keep people out. Some more tantalising narrative is presented. Elder sister Constance was “acquitted of murder” six years ago. There had been arsenic in the sugar on the blackberries at the family’s evening meal, “Never supposing it was to be our last”. Four died.

Chapters 3-10 – Well, Chapters 1 and 2 offer quite an introduction, so who could resist reading the remaining eight? And the back cover blurb – complimentary as back cover blurbs tend to be – offers the statement that “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” is widely considered to be Shirley Jackson’s masterpiece.

Shirley Hardie Jackson was an American writer born in San Francisco in 1916 and who died in Vermont in 1965 aged 48 years. She comes to our attention, as have several writers previously unknown to us, by getting a fresh wind in the Crime & Espionage reissues from publisher Penguin Random House’s back catalogue, of which there have been 30 titles so far.

It seems that Jackson is remembered primarily for writing tales of horror and mystery. Her career covered two decades and produced six novels, two memoirs and 200-plus short stories, of which one titled “The Lottery” is particularly famous. It was first published in The New Yorker magazine in 1948, and if it “presents the sinister underside of a bucolic American village”, as described, well so too does “We Have Always Lived in the Castle”.

This latter was published in 1962 and was Jackson’s final work. By the 1960s her health was declining badly but she continued to write and publish several works before dying young of a heart condition in her sleep in 1965. “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” is oft labelled as a Gothic mystery novel. Time magazine deemed it among the “Ten Best Novels” of 1962. It was filmed in 2018. Author Stephen King’s 1980 novel “Firestarter” has the dedication “In memory of Shirley Jackson, who never needed to raise her voice.”

Returning to those first two chapters, and without giving too much away, this is what went on. Six years ago Constance and Mary Katherine’s parents John and Ellen, the sisters’ aunt Dorothy and their younger brother Thomas, 10, were killed by the deadly dish. Dorothy’s husband, Uncle Julian, was left crippled. He is wheelchair-bound, dying of something and has a confused mind. He is also obsessed with the tragedy,  writing and re-writing notes for his memoirs about his relatives’ deaths.

So there are three of them left in the house. Constance is trapped in her domestic world and her mind. She was the cook on the day of the poisoning and was the only person at the table who didn’t put sugar on her berries. She was arrested and charged with murder but acquitted, although she is guilty in the eyes of the villagers. She hasn’t left the home since the trial.

But “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” is not a whodunnit. It is concerned with the present and only refers to the past when necessary for understanding. There may be a moment of revelation naming the murderer – but with a strange set-up like this, can we trust it?

Mary Katherine, “Merricat”, now 18, narrates the story. She had been sent to her room without dinner as punishment for some misdemeanour on the fateful day, and is now the only real link between her despised family and the outside world. But Constance worries that as Merricat grows up she will be attracted more and more to the village and beyond.

That seems unlikely, as Merricat keeps a low opinion of the villagers: “Their tongues will burn, I thought, as though they had eaten fire. Their throats will burn when the words come out, and in their bellies they will feel a torment hotter than a thousand fires.”

She believes she can protect the three of them with lucky words and magic rituals such as burying things – silver dollars, marbles – and nailing items to trees. She spends time walking the boundaries of their home and marking it out with scraps and trinkets. She fantasises about going to the Moon.

This is how she intoduces herself, and opens Chapter 1: “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.” (Richard Plantagenet presumably refers to Richard III, 1452-1485, King of England 1483-1485 who died in battle aged 32 – editor.)

“All of the village was of a piece, a time, and a style; it was as though the people needed the ugliness of the village, and fed on it.” Mary Katherine wonders why it had been worth while creating the villagers in the first place.

And Constance is likely to ignore the advice of one of their few approved visitors, who says: “It’s spring, you’re young, you’re lovely, you have a right to be happy. Come back into the world. You’ve done penance long enough.”

But what will happen if the outside world comes to them? If their “castle”, which in reality is just a rambling home, comes under siege from the “strangers”, the villagers? See Chapters 3-10.

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