WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE
by Shirley Jackson
Hardback available from The Folio Society
Mary Katherine Blackwood, also known fondly as Merricat, is eighteen years old and lives with her older sister, Constance Blackwood, and their wheelchair-bound uncle Julian. Coming from a well-to-do family, the sisters have never been looked upon favourably by the villagers in their community, especially since the murders of four other members of the Blackwood family. Though acquitted of the crimes, Constance is still seen as responsible for her family’s deaths and the villagers have done little to let her forget it.
Hiding away in their old, grand manor home, Merricat and Constance have weathered the storm and tried to stay clear of outside prying eyes and busy bodies but all that changes when their peace is shattered by the arrival of cousin Charles. Merricat’s instant dislike of the demonic cousin sets about a chain of events that will change all of their lives.
Following their release of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting Of Hill House, The Folio Society have produced this stunning hardback edition of Jackson’s last novel, WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE. This beautifully decorated edition features an illustrated cover and slipcase, as well as stunning artwork throughout the book, by artist Angie Hoffmeister. Bound in printed and blocked textured paper and set in Arno with Zachar display, the book also features 10 integrated tailpieces which provide the finishing touch to this wonderful edition which was printed in Italy. Folio Society have also published a limited edition release of the book, in a run of 500 copies, hand-numbered as well as signed by contributors Angie Hoffmeister and Donna Tartt, the latter of whom has written an afterword included in both versions of the book. The limited edition version has alternate artwork that is equally as stunning, with a clamshell case instead of a slipcase, which is designed as the front door of the Blackwood’s home which is a nice touch.
The story itself is hard to pin down in terms of genre. There’s a mystery to it with fantasy and thriller elements and dark sense of humour, but at its core I suppose its a dramatic tale about two young women versus the world they find themselves in.
When I first picked up the book, I wasn’t sure what to expect from WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE. I was taken aback by the style it opens with though I soon appreciated its cleverness in showing life through the eyes of its main character, Merricat. Her simplistic approach to language, using ‘and’ instead of commas when describing a list, not to mention the fantasy adventures of flying to the moon on her winged horse, shows that Mary Katherine isn’t quite the eighteen year old young woman you’d normally expect. With a penchant for repetition, having things in order, and relying on words or objects for magical and spiritual protection conjures up many observations of her character: trauma, obsessive compulsive disorder, autism, and isolation, something that has been deep-rooted from being a child. There’s also something quite noticeable about her too – her rage. When she doesn’t get her own way or if their routine is broken, she’s quick to react and does so quite negatively. None of this seems to bother elder sister Constance though. Ten years Merricat’s senior, Constance acts as the mother of the house since their own matriarch passed. She spends her days cooking and gardening, growing fruit and vegetables and adding to the ever growing inventory of preserves in the cellar. Merricat, Uncle Julian and even Jonas the cat eat like royalty thanks to Constance’s culinary skills. Having never left the house since the death of her parents, Constance has plenty of time to keep the house ticking over like clockwork, and both sisters ensure the rooms are kept spotless by ritualistically cleaning the property each week. Only family friend Helen Clarke ever comes round for tea, and even her presence is merely tolerated before the Blackwoods can return to thriving in their own little bubble.
Seeing life through the eyes of Merricat helps to put things into her perspective, even if some of her reactions to scenarios seem over the top and out of order. For instance, the threat of a stranger invading the Blackwood’s space becomes a real concern of the reader’s and, like Merricat, you can’t help but wish they would clear off and leave the women to it.
Throughout the story, Shirley Jackson cleverly teases future events without giving much away, and thus I read through the chapters anticipating what was to come, but relished uncovering the events leading up to the promised reveal. Jackson’s detailed descriptions of the homestead and life which Merricat, Constance and Uncle Julian live paint a vivid picture of the daily routine for the Blackwood trio. Merricat likes to play in the fields and woods, burying things and nailing family trinkets to trees. Constance is often found in the kitchen, serving up dinners and treats, cooked from scratch, for her remaining family members, whilst Uncle Julian pens and orders his memoirs of the family’s fateful last meal together. There’s something fantastical and whimsical about their existence that conjures up visions of 1950’s idyllic life, but there’s always something menacing that disturbs and snaps the reader back to reality with a bang, as if being suddenly awoken from a blissful dream. An unnerving sense of malice lingers throughout the story and at times pounces from the shadows into the limelight, taking centre stage for all to see. Peace is threatened, a home becomes a prison, but life has a funny way of turning things around.
Whilst a departure from the supernatural Jackson is most well known for, WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE is a strange yet curious creature that retains that sense of gothic eeriness.