‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’ is the final finished novel by acclaimed author Shirley Jackson. It is designed to be paired with the Folio Society’s edition of her other most famous work, ‘The Haunting of Hill House’, which was released last year. Both have stunning colour illustrations by Angie Hoffmeister and arresting cover designs.
Originally published in 1962, ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’ came out only three years before Shirley Jackson’s premature death at the age of 48. Although readers are left to wonder what other stories she may have written had she lived longer, her final offering is certainly mature, and the work of a confident writer who had nailed her literary style. The novel immediately grabs your attention. The opening paragraph introduces the narrator, one Mary Katherine Blackwood, known informally as Merricat. We learn that she lives with her sister Constance. Thrown in among friendly and otherworldly peripheral details, she tells us that “Everyone else in my family is dead.”
Although layered with evasion and digression, everything else in the novel springs forward from that chilling opening statement. Merricat, though, is talking only about her immediate family, because she and her sister live with their wheelchair-bound Uncle Julian. We quickly learn that their world is a small one, despite their relative affluence. They isolate themselves from the village and even more so from the world beyond it. Theirs is a house in which time has stood still since fateful events six years earlier. Constance hasn’t left the grounds of the house in the intervening period. Sometimes, outsiders such as the Clarkes come for tea, but they bring with them the ominous threat of the outside world so are not received hospitably. When cousin Charles visits, it feels like an invasion. Unlike the quiet, fragile and otherworldly Uncle Julian, Charles is a younger man and drives an unwelcome wedge between the sisters.
Behind every seemingly innocent event lie a handful of nagging questions: what happened to the girls’ parents, aunt and sibling? How did so many family members die in the same house simultaneously? What future could the two young women possibly hope to have when their only plan is to stay holed away from people in their increasingly decrepit family home? How much of a threat are the villagers, who whisper and spread rumours about the Blackwoods and what has happened in their home? Answers come, but Shirley Jackson is the master at creating suspense, then maintaining it with an atmosphere of uneasiness and creeping menace.
It is hard to define ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’ or even settle on which genre you are reading. There are elements that point to horror but without the narrative ever straying into the supernatural, at least outside of the imagination of a troubled teenager. Essentially, it is a literary work that is character- rather than plot-driven where its secrets reveal themselves, and not always in full resolution, throughout the course of the novel. The author cleverly and insidiously manipulates the reader: once you start to figure out who Merricat is, and once the true personality of the character reveals itself, you question your sympathies. The process of discomfiting the reader is achieved with consummate literary skill.
‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’ won’t have universal appeal. If you prefer books with fast-moving plots that tie up every loose end, then this isn’t the title for you. However, for a novel with literary flair that is driven by mood, Jackson’s book is in a league of its own.
Immerse yourself in a Twentieth Century classic. Take pleasure in your changing reactions to the characters as their histories come to light and impact on the present. But be warned: time in the Blackwood household can induce claustrophobia. This is a book about isolation and the consequences of exiling yourself from society in order to live with secrets.
‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’ may well be considered Shirley Jackson’s masterpiece. The characters are more rounded and compelling than those presented in the ghostly classic ‘The Haunting of Hill House’. The dark and unsettling novel retains its power to absorb and chill readers over six decades after it was written. For fans of Jackson’s work, this beautifully-produced edition pairs perfectly on the bookcase with ‘The Haunting of Hill House’.
The Folio Society’s edition of ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’ by Shirley Jackson, illustrated by Angie Hoffmeister and with an afterword by Donna Tartt (author of ‘The Secret History’) is available exclusively from www.FolioSociety.com.
Publisher: The Folio Society Publication date: August 2023 Buy ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’