We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson

Creeeepy.  I read The Haunting of Hill House and liked it a lot, but when I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle, I thought, “Oh, yes, there’s the lady who wrote ‘The Lottery’.”  There are some of the same themes here, particularly towards the end, that mob mentality and the fear of things being different.  My review’s going to contain spoilers, because I don’t know how to talk about the book without any spoilers at all.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is about two sisters, Merricat and Constance, who live with their uncle Julian, the three of them all that survived an arsenic poisoning that killed the rest of their family.  Constance, in her twenties at the time of the event, fell under suspicion, and twelve-year-old Merricat went into an orphanage while Constance was on trial.  Now Merricat is a slightly odd eighteen-year-old dedicated to creating spells and protections to keep strangers away from her family.

I have no idea why I took against this book with such a passion when I read it for the first time in England.  It’s really good!  I love how the first half of the book builds towards the revelation of what happened to make Constance and Merricat and Uncle Julian such outsiders.  Shirley Jackson does a great job of writing Merricat, her efforts to keep her family safe from the outside world, how she needs Constance, particularly, to stay with her, how she dreams of them both getting away from everything (“going to the moon”).

Shirley Jackson can build an atmosphere, I have to say. In this as well as in The Haunting of Hill House (and her short stories), there’s a pervasive feeling of wrongness about what’s going on.  You can’t always put your finger on what’s wrong exactly, and when you can you can’t explain why it’s so ominous, but it always makes you a smidge uncomfortable.  I loved the fixation on Constance’s cooking, for instance, in the first parts of the book.  It’s a mundane detail except that there’s such an emphasis on it, and then every time it’s mentioned you start feeling jittery.

England Jenny was a cranky face.  We Have Always Lived in the Castle is great.  Thanks to my lovely blog commenters for repeatedly insisting that it was worth a read and was even better than The Haunting of Hill House.  I am not sure I agree, because I like haunted house stories, but it is definitely very very good.

Other people’s thoughts: Hey Lady! Whatcha Reading?, things mean a lot, Asylum, A Striped Armchair, Bart’s Bookshelf, Book Addiction, So Many Books, BooksPlease, The Bookling, Save Ophelia, Bending Bookshelf, book-a-holic, Bibliolatry, Bold. Blue. Adventure, Booknotes by Lisa, books i done read, Books and Cooks

Let me know if I missed yours!

17 thoughts on “We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson

  1. I love her short stories, too. It always seems like a matter of perspective, as you say: one everyday detail emphasized so it seems larger than it should, and throws everything else just slightly out of whack. Or repetition in the “methinks she doth protest too much” genre. Lovely stuff.

    • It’s a shame she didn’t write more novels. I’m currently reading her two books about her children, and they’re a delight, but I just wish there were more of her work left for me to read. I am getting a book of her short stories next, but her two novels have been so atmospheric and amazing, I sooo wish there were more of them.

    • It seems like that’s what everyone said! I swear half of the reviews I linked to said that very same thing. She did write an excellent review – and it’s as wonderful as she and everyone else have been saying. I’m glad I picked it up to read last night. (Before bed – bad idea, I was up until one finishing it.)

  2. yay, I’m so glad you enjoyed it this time around! You know what else I found really creepy? How for most of the book Merricat sounded much, much younger than eighteen. I was actually really surprised when her age was revealed, and that’s another thing that contributes to that things being slightly off mood she creates. Also (spoilery comment, readers beware), I felt SO sorry for Constance at the end 😦

    • Oh, yes, me too – I thought she was thirteen tops. And (still with the spoilers) I loved it how ominous her comments about the villagers seemed later on, as well as the “protection spells” she kept building throughout the book. What was really sad to me (cause I read the end before I read the middle!) was how much Constance clearly wanted Charles to stay and be part of their lives. Even though he was obviously loathsome, he was this bastion of normalcy for Constance.

  3. This is hands down one of my favorite books. It’s one of those favorites that sneaks up on you though… As for her short stories! I agree, they’re absolutely splendid.

    I’m glad you enjoyed it this time around.

    • I think you’re right – I expect this is one of those books that will be even better when I reread it (several times). Shirley Jackson is so careful about creating her characters and her atmosphere, and I think I’ll catch more of her little details when I reread.

      Btw, absolutely love your blog’s name!

  4. I didn’t really read your review, just in case I wanted to read that book one day. But, I remember ‘The Lottery’. Oh yes. It was a very creepy book, yes it was. But it was interesting to write an essay about it in HS all those years ago. Didn’t she also write ‘The Possibility of Evil’? It was an equally intriguing little story about roses and an old lady as I vaguely recall.

    • Yes, with the roses! I have such vivid memories of reading that and “The Lottery” in my eighth-grade English class. We were supposed to find five religious symbols in “The Lottery” and my smarty-pants sister spotted that Mrs. Delacroix’s name meant “of the cross”. But yeah, if you liked her short stories, I think you’ll like her books too. If only there were more of them!

  5. I just finished reading this book! It was very good, but not as crazy brilliant as Hill House – I thought, in a weird way, it was a little like Faulkner’s creepy short stories, especially “a rose for Emily”. I think the best part was where Charles comes back at the end, with the photographer – that conversation was so sad and funny. Poor Constance, falling in love with a creep.

    • You thought she was in love with him? To me it seemed more like she viewed him as a way of escaping back into normalcy – like, it wasn’t even so much him that she was in love with, as the idea of something normal in her life. But either way, that end scene with the photographer was fantastic.

  6. Pingback: Wrapping up 2009 « Jenny's Books

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