We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson

This was my first experience reading something by Shirley Jackson though I was familiar with her reputation as a modern Gothic horror fiction writer. I haven't read much in this genre style and was prepared for pure spooky but instead found the story just made me tense. After finishing, I read a Readers Advisory article about the genre from Novelist Plus  (use your ICPL card and password for at-home access) and discovered many of the standard characterizations of the genre were present in this novel :

  • "A naïve heroine trapped in a claustrophobic setting" - check
  • "foreboding progressing into full-blown fear" - yep
  • "melancholia, insanity, mayhem, cruelty, and death" - check, check, check, check, and check!
  • "Narrators can be chronically unreliable and occasionally unhinged" - ha!
  • "Settings are dark and ancient – a decaying manor house..." - right there in the title

This was a very quick read at just over 160 pages. The story takes place in a small town in the aftermath of an arsenic murder that has killed off most of one of the old money families, the Blackwoods. Years later those that remain in the estate are 18-year-old Mary Katherine (Merrycat, a child at the time), her older sibling Constance (found not guilty of the crime), and poor old Uncle Julian. Julian has barely survived the poisoning, he is physically disabled and via his senile ramblings we learn more and more about particulars from the day of the terrible incident. The mostly working class town resents the family and a new generation is growning up with a sort of urban legend regarding the murder, this uneasy history will lead to the novel's climax. The daily life of the three Blackwoods is oddly tranquil and very routine. Constance has taken up the matriarch mantle and keeps house though never leaves it except to pick from the garden. Julian is forever revising his notes regarding the fateful day's events leading up to that dessert of blackberries with sugar. Odd Merrycat exists in a feral childlike state, roaming the estate, occasionally sleeping out in a bed of leaves, and casting warding spells against the town's residents either verbally or through destruction or burial of family objects. Jackson then drops in a visit from a distant Cousin hoping to finagle a fortune and that strange calm over Blackwood estate is ruined.

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