Book review: 'We Have Always Lived in the Castle' by Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson was truly a master of weaving suspense and humor in her work. Known for her iconic short story, "The Lottery," I recommend you indulge in her wonderful writing. I love horror movies, but what I love most is good, old-fashioned horror books – most notably those by Jackson. Most recently I read her gothic tale We Have Always Lived in the Castle, originally published in 1962. From the very first paragraph, we are met with an air of mystery as told by Mary Katherine Blackwood: "I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the deathcup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead." This is how Jackson hooks you – from the beginning and with intrigue.
We can surmise, from what Mary Katherine divulges in her narrative, that the villagers do not like the Blackwoods – hate is the word she uses – and we can be sure that the feeling is mutual. As the story progresses, we are given more of the story, but never the whole all at once. We are kept guessing as to what the whole story is and how it came to be. Just when you think you may have figured out why the villagers are afraid of the Blackwoods, Mary Katherine lets slip some extreme oddity said or done by herself or the other two inhabitants of the Blackwood home. On one page you will feel empathy for the family and, on the next, a bit startled by the bits and pieces given.
I love how Jackson is able to create such offbeat-yet-loveable characters – from Uncle Julian's constant weaving in and out of the present, to Merricat's odd compulsion to constantly bury things, to Constance's continuous need to be icky sweet even when the circumstances warrant the opposite. The way the family relates to not only each other but to the world around them is nothing short of peculiar. Yet somehow this quality is endearing in the way only the abnormal can be. It's odd and you know it, even still you are compelled to like this family.
By the end of the book, we are indeed on the side of the Blackwoods as the villagers horrific behavior becomes too much to bear. And just when you are certainly feeling complete empathy for them, we are given a final bombshell that will immediately make you gasp.
I highly recommend this and any book by Jackson. She had a witty way of conveying her stories that will keep you interested and instantly wanting to read all her works.
Side note: There is a recent film adaption of We Have Always Lived in the Castle that is pretty good. It veers from the book here and there, but not in any major ways that detract from the original. It's quite entertaining if you're into the odd and quirky.