In The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson’s group of misguided investigators discuss the idea that some houses are inherently born evil, and are destined to be haunted from the moment they’re built. We Have Always Lived in the Castle explores the opposite idea: how a home becomes a haunted house.
One of the many, many fascinating things about this book is the way it could have been approached in a completely different way. It could have opened with someone – a stranger to the village, most likely, who didn’t know the story – viewing the ruined Blackwood house. The house stands by itself behind a fence, and the townspeople still tell stories about the family who lived there once, and what happened there. The only ones who approach the house are children, on a dare, who run up to the front steps and sing, “Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea? Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.” The stranger asks around about this apparently-haunted house, and eventually, through flashbacks, its entire terrifying history is revealed.
Another writer could have easily tackled We Have Always Lived in the Castle in this way, and the book would have been just as good. But Shirley Jackson is no ordinary horror writer, and she approaches the story of Blackwood House, and the people who lived there and made it what it was, in a straightforward way. She tells the story as it happens, not as a flashback, and we are able to watch the transformation of Blackwood House, and its inhabitants, in real time as the book unfolds.
Simply put, We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a ghost story without ghosts. It’s the story of how a house becomes haunted, or, more accurately, how a person becomes a ghost.
Our view into this house comes from Mary Katherine Blackwood, an eighteen-year-old girl who lives in Blackwood House with her older sister Constance (who is so severely agoraphobic that she can’t venture past the yard) and her Uncle Julian, who is confined to a wheelchair and not quite in his right mind. Mary Katherine is responsible for taking care of what’s left of her family, and she takes her job as protector very seriously. She’s devised a series of talismans to guard the house against the townspeople, who she views as the enemy. But someone is coming to disrupt the routine that Mary Katherine has carefully created, and the intrusion will have horrible and far-reaching consequences.
GOD, Shirley Jackson does creepy so well. Mary Katherine, in addition to belonging in the Unreliable Narrator Hall of Fame, is also responsible for giving us one of the best opening paragraphs in literature, when she introduces us to her life thusly:
“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.”
The slow reveal of what exactly happened to the rest of the Blackwood family and why is masterfully done, and Jackson reveals just enough information to keep us from getting frustrated, while still keeping some things hidden (admittedly, the identity of the murderer was pretty easy to guess, if only through process of elimination, but I promise that the why of the murder is a lot more interesting than the who).
It’s very important that we see the entire story through Mary Katherine’s eyes specifically, because as I said, she’s not a reliable narrator. “Unbalanced” is putting it lightly, and I could write an entire fucking dissertation on what Mary Katherine tells us vs. what’s actually happening.
Nobody does slow-burn, are-ghosts-real-or-are-the-monsters-people, is-this-real-or-am-I-crazy horror like Shirley Jackson. This book is brief, strange, purposefully vague, and terrifying. If you thought haunted-house stories don’t need prequels, read this and see how wrong you were.
Verdict: five out of five stars