Merricat Blackwood lives on the family estate with her sister Constance and her uncle Julian. Not long ago there were seven Blackwoods – until a fatal dose of arsenic found its way into the sugar bowl one terrible night. Only Merricat can see the danger, and she must act swiftly to keep Constance from his grasp.
Typical Shirley Jackson, upending narrative conventions and beginning a story with a dynamite paragraph:
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’s genre is nebulous. How to classify this weird, weird little book? Unlike Jackson’s other famous novel The Haunting of Hill House, Castle is not a haunted house story, but the genesis of a haunted house story. Houses aren’t built haunted; they become haunted. The Blackwood House once stood tall above a village occupied by generations of the well-to-do Blackwood family until one day they are all murdered around the dinner table, killed by arsenic laced in a bowl of sugar, leaving only the surviving sisters Constance and Mary Katherine, fondly called “Merricat,” to live there.
Like all good haunted house stories, between the fall of Blackwood House from respected family manor to a burnt and boarded “castle,” there are plenty of narrative gaps; doors opened only a crack, big black spaces scarcely illuminated by a sliver of light. The history of the Blackwood House and its family is mysterious. Who put the arsenic in the sugar bowl? Why does Constance refuse to leave the house? Why is Merricat forbidden to cook dinner? Gaps in knowledge mean Blackwood House is the perfect target for imaginative village storytellers trying to solve those mysteries. Only instead of seeking true answers for the Blackwoods’ decline, they choose to populate the house with ghosts and witches and cannibalistic old maids.
Underneath its ostentatiously bizarre façade, Castle retreads the same old Shirley Jackson ideas. Conflict is mostly internal, dealing with the choice between being an individual and fitting in with society. Those who choose society fall victim to mob mentality, unable to properly decide what is right versus what everyone else is doing. Here everything is topsy-turvy. Villains can be heroes as long as they have strength of conviction. What is important is not if your actions are right or wrong, but whether these actions are motivated by your own decision-making. Happiness is not other people; horror lurks in a friendly neighborhood too. And happiness can be found inside a castle, inside a rotted old haunted house, because you are alone, isolated, and safe; nobody else can enter.