The day after I began Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, I finished it. Not only is it a fast read, I just couldn’t put it down. It was weird and creepy and the further along I read the more disturbing it got.
As I mentioned a few days ago, Constance and Mary Katherine (affectionately called Merricat by Constance), and Uncle Julian live alone in the Blackwood family home. Six years prior to the start of the story, there were seven Blackwoods living in the huge house on a large piece of property. But four of the Blackwoods died one night at the dinner table after sprinkling what they thought was sugar on the berries they had for dessert. The arsenic would have killed Uncle Julian too but he didn’t use enough of it to be fatal. Nonetheless, his health was ruined by it. Merricat had been sent to her room without dinner, and Constance, the one who always did the cooking didn’t like sugar. Of course, Constance was blamed.
Constance was tried and acquitted. She was so traumatized by the whole ordeal she never left the house again. Uncle Julian was in a wheelchair. Merricat was the only one able to venture out to town to buy food and other supplies. She went twice a week and she hated it. The townspeople hated her. The townspeople hated all the Blackwoods. It didn’t used to be that way. There was some animosity before the poisoning and the trial, but afterwards, they never forgave Constance for being found not guilty. A few old family friends still visited once a week for the sake of the friendship they had with the girls’ parents. Besides them and the doctor who came to see Julian, the three were all alone.
No telephone. No radio. Hardly any visitors. Constance spends her days keeping the house tidy, cooking, gardening, and caring for Uncle Julian. Merricat spends her days helping Constance keep things tidy and wandering the woods with her cat Jonas. Merricat is 18 but acts like she is still 12. She buries things around the property, talismans. She does not like any variation from the usual routine. She often tells Constance “if we lived on the moon…” Constance is 28 and treats Merricat like she is still 12 and acts like her mother. Their relationship is very odd and uncomfortable.
The poo hits the fan when one day Cousin Charles shows up at the door. Charles is the son of one of their father’s brothers. When this brother married, his new wife decided she did not like the Blackwoods and cut off all connection. Charles’ mother died recently (his father was already dead) and he appears on the pretense that he wants to mend the family and get to know his cousins. Merricat hates him. He is an intruder and a threat to her peaceful, routine existence.
I can’t tell you anymore because it will ruin the whole book. I will say that we find out who put the arsenic in the sugar bowl. We learn the true colors of Charles. And we are shown the depths of fear and guilt that live in the hearts of the townspeople.
While I enjoyed the book immensely, I liked Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House better. That one was much more menacing in a way that was missing from this one. However, this was a truly excellent read for my first RIP III book.