I first heard about this thanks to Simon at Stuck in a Book, who has mentioned Shirley Jackson a few times over the last couple of years, always with great affection. The post that particularly caught my eye covered Simon’s thoughts on her first volume of memoirs, Life Among the Savages, which he described enticingly as the ‘Provincial Lady transferred to America’. I filed her under ‘authors to read one day’ and then, quite unexpectedly, stumbled across a copy of her most famous novella, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, in my local charity shop. Without any idea of what to expect, I bought it. Indeed, because Simon had spoken highly of it and I know his fondness for Persephone Books, and because the title sounded vaguely like I Capture the Castle, I assumed (with no justification whatsoever) that it was going to be a rather heart-warming, languid tale of a well-to-do childhood in a crumbling big house. Not so.
Mary Katherine Blackwood, known familiarly as Merricat, lives with her big sister Constance and her frail elderly Uncle Julian in the Blackwood family home, a grand house on the outskirts of a small American town. As Merricat tells us in the opening paragraph, ‘Everyone else in my family is dead.‘ To be frank, everyone else was murdered six years ago, in an unfortunate incident involving arsenic in the sugar which the family sprinkled over their pudding after dinner. Constance was arrested, but acquitted of the crime, and now the two sisters and their uncle lead a reclusive life in their house and grounds, shut off from the rest of the world.
Their only encounter with the townspeople comes through Merricat’s twice-weekly trip to buy provisions at the local stores and to change the family’s library books, but even this brief contact with the outside world is a torment as Merricat faces the whispers, gossip and taunting of the locals. Yet she has to keep going: she has taken on the responsibility of protecting Constance and providing for their household anything which can’t be grown in the garden or found among the jars of preserves in their cellar. Merricat acts as the forager, accompanied by her faithful cat Jonas; Constance cooks and cares for the house; and Uncle Julian slips in and out of lucidity, consumed by his desire to meticulously record ‘the last day’ on which the rest of their family met their unexpected deaths.
What is so fascinating about the book is the style of narration. For a start, the story is about the kind of eerie house that stands on the outskirts of town in many a film or novel, but the difference here is that we hear the story from the inhabitants’ own perspective. Part of the pleasure comes from slowly peeling back the various layers of the family’s secrets to reveal the truth of what happened (although you might well guess the final revelation from the beginning). None of the three Blackwoods who remain in the house are entirely normal. They have closed themselves off, turned themselves inwards, creating a world in which their lives are precisely regimented and in which they cope with their trauma by religiously following their rituals – whether that means Uncle Julian obsessively revisiting the day of the family’s murders, or Constance methodically ‘neatening’ the house each Monday, or Merricat’s efforts to protect the house magically through burying powerful objects (money, jewellery, marbles) around the perimeter:
I had always buried things, even when I was small. I remember that
once I quartered the long field and buried something in each quarter
to make the grass grow higher as I grew taller, so I would always
be able to hide there. I once buried six blue marbles in the creek bed
to make the river beyond run dry. “Here is treasure for you to bury,”
Constance used to say to me when I was small, giving me a penny,
or a bright ribbon; I had buried all my baby teeth as they came out
one by one and perhaps someday they would grow as dragons.
All our land was enriched with my treasures buried in it, thickly
inhabited just below the surface with my marbles and my teeth
and my colored stones, all perhaps turned to jewels by now,
held together under the ground in a powerful taut web which never
loosened, but held fast to guard us.
By seeing things through Merricat’s eyes, we initially assume that things are natural or harmless, whereas in fact they are the manifestation of a profoundly disturbed personality. Even the choice of words is telling. Constance and Merricat don’t clean the house, they ‘neaten’ it. There is something ritualistic about their actions: making sure that things remain exactly where they should be; keeping things precisely in order; ensuring that nothing is left out of sync so that the power of the house and the family is somehow placated and kept benevolent. Throughout all their movements there is a persistent thread of fear of the unknown.
That ‘unknown’ takes human form one day, when the girls’ cousin Charles Blackwood turns up at the house, uninvited and determined to make himself at home. With one eye on Constance and the other on the family’s safe, Charles blunders into the heart of the family’s carefully crafted regime and sets about bringing normality into the house. This sacrilege promises to utterly destroy the delicate existence enjoyed by the girls and their Uncle Julian, on which they believe their wellbeing rests. More to the point, it threatens to shatter Merricat’s fragile grasp on reality as her magic words, tokens and dreams of flying away to live on the moon are trampled beneath the unwelcome feet of this brash, brutish intruder. She and Charles know instinctively that only one of them can prevail.
I’ve seen this book described as a horror novel, a chiller and a Gothic novel and I suppose it’s a blend of all of these, but I would emphasise that it isn’t horror in its usual sense. It isn’t scary so much as unsettling, and the choice to tell us the story through Merricat’s eyes mean that we grow to understand the loving bonds between the members of the Blackwood family who remain: the gentleness, understanding and patience which infuses the life they lead and their deep, desperate need to protect one another from the unfeeling world beyond. It’s such a short, simple story that you could read it in a couple of hours, but it’s one of those rather delicious books that lingers with you afterwards. Perfect material for curling up by a winter’s fire.