Review: We Have Always Lived In The Castle

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood.
Merricat lives with her sister Constance and their unwell uncle in the large Blackwood house, hating and hated by the locals. They have lived content in their seclusion since Constance was acquitted of the murders of every other member of their household several years before. But a new threat to their way of life is about to appear, in the form of their opportunistic cousin, Charles Blackwood.

This was my very first Shirley Jackson but it is not going to be my last. I checked this out from the library, intrigued but not wanting to purchase the not overly cheap book when I wasn't sure whether I would like it, but almost the moment I finished I went and ordered myself a lovely edition of it for my very own, this is a book that needs to live on my shelf. And can we take a moment to admire that cover. Damn, that's creepy and glorious. Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, if you're wondering. This book was right up my mildly sociopathic street, one that is likely to be joining the ranks of favourites. Those morally ambiguous, shades of grey characters that I mentioned I love, here be another one. 

I loved Merricat, our fascinating eighteen year old point of view character. She was clearly a bit of a psychopath, it is fairly obvious right from the off that she is the far more likely culprit for the murders of her family even if she was just twelve at the time. She has violent fantasies about the deaths of anyone who she doesn't like, which is almost everyone, and seemingly delights in bringing up her extensive knowledge of poisonous mushrooms in conversation with those she would love to dispose of. But she's also a very vulnerable character, she lives in her own little world of structure and order, of rituals and odd practices that she believes will keep her and her sister from harm, whether it be burying a box of silver dollars or not encountering or thinking about three specific words. And she has a cat who is her best friend, something that endears me to her even more.

Of the other main players in the story, Constance was endearingly sweet and loving, devoted to her little sister but terrified of the outside world, while Uncle Julian was wonderfully, pitifully eccentric, permanently damaged by the poison that killed the rest of his family, but obsessed with keeping record of every tiny detail of that fateful night. Charles Blackwood however was a really rather vile character, showing up unannounced into Merricat and Connie's lives, complete with false familial feelings and an enormous sense of entitlement. I despise characters like this, he infuriated me from the moment he showed up, his every action or word repugnant to Merricat and to the reader, both of us clearly able to see that his motives are less than pure. He was thoroughly slimy and reeked of Privileged White Boy TM. I loved to hate him and was wishing various horrors upon him.

Shirley Jackson is of course well known as a writer of the dark and the horrifying, her most famous story, The House On Haunted Hill, has twice been adapted into a horror movie, so it is no surprise that this is a dark and creepy story. There are a few moments of heart-racing horror, nothing gruesome or gory or even particularly violent, but truly unsettling and awful as the reality of mob-mentality is unleashed and crashes apart the seemingly perfect picture of the Blackwoods. There is a pervading feeling of unease and eeriness to this book, there's a somewhat haunting tone to the writing that leaves you just knowing that something lurks, waiting beneath the surface to jump out at you.

The idyllic quality of the life and locale of the Blackwoods always has that slight feeling of being a thin film over something dark and sinister, a calmness and contentment that will inevitably break, in a world where a family can be poisoned by the sugar they put on their blackberries and the culprit can get away with it, and where a tiny change could shatter everything. It is clear that the Blackwoods considered themselves better than the people around them, a belief that Merricat upholds, viewing the locals with contempt while they look at her with the same, creating a wholly hostile world surrounding the fragile fairytale life behind the walls and fences around the Blackwood land, always threatening to seep in and poison their perfect contentment, held at bay by Merricat's belief in her rituals and rules.

Not that much actually happens for the majority of this short novel, it is all about these decidedly odd people and the fantastic building up of the atmosphere and the tension, with the mystery of what really happened to the Blackwoods and the hatred and contempt that permeates throughout, ever looming over the narrative like a dark cloud ready to burst. All of the build up pays off wonderfully in the final act, the last part of this story was rather unexpected and very odd, but also sort of perfect, with the sisters getting their most unusual happily ever after, still picturesque and almost fairy-tale-esque but in a vastly altered way. Though we do get the tiny nod of confirmation of who really put poison in the sugar bowl it almost doesn't matter, we've known all along, and are left with nothing but more questions, and yet it seems terribly fitting. This was such an odd, messed up, delightfully morbid little story, we could never hope to find it tied up with a bow. But I bloody loved it.

Merricat, said Connie, would like a cup of tea?
Oh, no, said Merricat, you'll poison me.

Highly Recommended 

Read: 24/7/16
Source: Library (since purchased)

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