Book Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (3/5). Not a good book to read before bed.

7 Oct

What a perfect selection for the beginnings of a chilly fall! My book club tries to match the book with the season when possible and I think this is a great pairing. The other Shirley Jackson I’ve read is The Haunting of Hill House, which deserves all the chills it gave me. This book was a little less ghost-like, but gave me equal chills.

Cover Image via

Cover Image via

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Merricat, Constance, and Uncle Julian have always lived in Blackwood Manor and for a long time, the rest of their family lived there with them. But the other members of the Blackwood family are all dead now. They were poisoned by arsenic laced in their sugar and Constance, the chef of the family was tried of murder and found innocent. Needless to say, there aren’t a lot of guests around. Merricat has developed her own system of voodoo and magic to keep the townspeople at bay and Constance is afraid of talking to anyone new. Uncle Julian is suffering from slight effects of arsenic poisoning and the cat is Merricat’s only playmate as she buries family heirlooms and nails books to trees. But then Cousin Charles shows up and the web of secrecy that Merricat has woven is shattered. She must get him out because he does not understand and he can’t interrupt the family Merricat has formed around her.

Talk about creepy! Jackson did an incredible job of giving us a narrator who is perfectly logical yet completely insane. Merricat has a reason for everything she does; to protect herself and her sister. But the things she does to achieve that goal are outrageous. She buries gold, hides leaves and sticks in Cousin Charles’ guest room, creates a small fort in the woods, and picks magic words to make everything ‘right.’ Reading this book before bed gave me chills and it’s a great Halloween read.

Merricat’s ability to think logically made her all the more frightening because you could see someone making those same decisions. Merricat seems like a harmless little girl at first, but when you learn she’s grown and that she puts action behind the fantasies and delusions in her head, it’s frightening. Merricat as narrator made this book the chilling piece that it was.

I loved Uncle Julian. He had such a fascination with what should have been his own death. It’s obvious that Merricat’s goal was to have only her and Constance survive and Julian was a mistake. His memory slips were endearing and I loved that he wrote and was so worried about his papers and others touching them. As a writer, that was really refreshing and enjoyable.

The townspeople were the most relatable to me. I understood the guilt they shared over what they’d done to the Blackwoods. In the moment, something can feel so right and justified, but later you regret it and try to find a way to make things better. I thought it was great that most of the town, not one or two people, brought food. It really showed that it was the feelings of one or two people who influenced most of the others on that fateful day. It was a great touch.

Shirley Jackson Image via the author's website.

Shirley Jackson
Image via the author’s website.

The time that Cousin Charles spent in the house was the most enjoyable to me. I loved watching Merricat torture him with her small little tricks. Putting water in his bed and leaves in his book cases was perfect! It was small, but just enough to undermine him and drive him crazy. And what a great idea to get pesky guests out of your house!

Okay, spoiler here. I wish it had never been said aloud that Merricat poisoned the family. I thought it was well enough implied that there was no reason for Jackson to come out and say it. I think the story would have been better if we’d been left with that mystery. It was pretty easy to infer anyway.

It’s hard to think of a theme or message from this book. Family means different things to different people, regret will come back to get you, greed never pays; there are a few, but none of them seem worth exploring. I think this piece was very entertaining and I’m having trouble thinking of a larger message that. I’m thinking back to my piece on horror and what the purpose of horror is other than to scare us. I think it also helps us realized what it really is that scares us.

Writer’s Takeaway: Merricat is a beautifully flawed and frightening character and Jackson has shown me yet again what a master she is of the human mind. The scary thing about Merricat and Eleanor from The Haunting of Hill House is that you only notice how flawed they are after a time. At first, they seem completely normal. Sure something in their background might make you scratch your head for a second, but it’s never anything that would scream ‘COMPLETELY PSYCHO’ to anyone. But slowly you realized that you should be running for the hills. Jackson is a genius of this character progression.

A good, creepy read, but not for me. Three out of five stars.

This book fulfills ‘Vermont’ for the Where Are You Reading? Challenge.

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Related Posts:
No 714 We Have Always Lived in the at the Castle by Shirley Jackson | 746 Books
The Backlist: Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle | The Stake
Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson | The ADD Bookblog

6 Responses to “Book Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (3/5). Not a good book to read before bed.”

  1. Cathy746books October 7, 2014 at 12:09 PM #

    Thanks for the link! I actually found this scarier than Haunting of Hill House. The thought of those two sisters in that house for the rest of their lives just gave me the chills!


    • Sam October 7, 2014 at 1:23 PM #

      Agree. This kind of horror got under my skin and has been harder to forget about.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Desi Valentine October 7, 2014 at 12:24 PM #

    I loved this book. I read it last fall during a semester break and it was just the thing to wash my mind clean of school stress and political philosophy, especially given Jackson’s biography. Like you, I found it creepy, but not particularly scary. Interestingly, though, what I took away from it was a sort of ontology tale for the creation of Town Witches. The way the townspeople brought offerings and created a mythology around Constance and Merricat, who then (it is implied) came to embody those myths through their reclusive, but ever-watching, behaviour. Throughout the story, the townspeople are complicit in the Blackwoods’ exile and therefore in the Blackwoods’ self-destruction, and that Merricat especially seems to know this but does nothing to stop it speaks (to me, anyway) to broader issues of systemic exclusion in Western society – of which Jackson was both a victim and a perpetrator in her own life. Very cool stuff. Thanks for posting about it.


    • Sam October 7, 2014 at 1:25 PM #

      Wow what great insight! I hadn’t thought of the girls as witches but that’s no doubt how the town saw them, especially the young boys who had they own songs about the girls. It seemed like Merricat knew enough magic to qualify!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. amyinthelibrary November 21, 2014 at 7:58 PM #

    Just came across your review! I really wish I’d been able to make the discussion for this book, it’s one of my favorites. In fact, I recommended the title to Jennifer!

    As regards your SPOILER that it was revealed that Merricat was the one to poison the family, to me the fact that Merricat was the criminal was the least shocking part of that reveal. I’m sure most readers will have guessed it was her by that point. No, for me the shocking part is that Constance knows Merricat poisoned the family, and she’s probably known all along. While Uncle Julian remained oblivious, Constance knew. That reveal shed so much light on the sisters’ relationship. Constance dotes on Merricat; she indulges her. In the beginning, you might assume this is because Constance is the culprit, and she feels guilty for depriving Merricat of her family. What does it mean that Constance knows her sister to be guilty, and stills plays the part of the devoted sister, even going so far as to choose her murderous sister over a love interest? While Merricat’s character is clearly disturbed and chilling to the bone, Constance is a puzzle; quietly eerie in her own right.

    Just an awesome book, and one of my faves!


    • Sam November 22, 2014 at 12:37 PM #

      I didn’t find the fact that Merricat was the killer was a spoiler at all. I saw it coming from the very beginning. When we had the discussion, only one person admitted she didn’t see it coming. I agree that the fact Constance knew was a bigger surprise. I think she was afraid to lose the only family she had left, even if it was for a love interest in Charles. I found her, like you, equally as creepy as Merricat.

      Happy reading!


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