Review | We Have Always Lived in the Castle

89724TITLE: We Have Always Lived in the Castle
: Shirley Jackson
: Penguin Books
: 1962
: Gothic Horror, Adult Fiction
: 160

Late American author, Shirley Jackson, is famous for her dark stories including her controversial debut, The Lottery.  Her final novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, is hailed as her greatest work.  

In this gothic thriller, 18-year-old Merricat Blackwood lives in happy isolation with her uncle Julian and sister Constance, who was acquitted of murdering the rest of the family.  The delicate sanity and safety of the remaining Blackwoods is threatened by meddling do-gooders, treacherous townspeople, and a long-lost relative desperate to get into the family safe…

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 our family is dead – page 1

In the opening paragraph we are introduced to Merricat, our enchanting but unreliable first person narrator.  Afraid of the hostile world outside the Blackwood home, she is obsessively protective of her older sister.  Her narrative reveals the inner workings of a claustrophobic and unstable mind.  One minute she’s daydreaming of magical alternate realities, and the next she’s wishing death upon people she dislikes.

I wanted to stamp on him after he was dead, and see him lying dead on the grass … “Cousin Charles?” I said, and he turned to look at me.  I thought of seeing him dead.  “Cousin Charles?” – page 80

Jackson eases us slowly into the plot with Merricat’s idiosyncratic narrative voice.  After the opening chapters, the rising tension gripped me; I read the second half of this short book in one sitting.  Although the tension constantly escalates, the pace never speeds up.  This technique of slowing the reader down made the sense of foreboding and mystery even more suspenseful.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is an unsettling tale of social ostracism.  Merricat views the Blackwoods’ isolation as a paradise she must preserve at all costs.  In true Gothic form, her possessiveness is an insidious slope.  It reads like a sinister fairy tale.  

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