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We Have Always Lived in the Castle

An American house of horror

I’m finding that bitesized, escapist fiction suits my concentration levels these days and We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, perfectly fits the bill. The story of two mysterious sisters living with their ailing uncle in a grand, ivy-covered Vermont house is unsettling from the word go. We Have Always Lived in the Castle was Jackson’s – the American queen of ghost and horror stories – last and, many think, best novel.

Mary Katherine (Merricat) and Constance Blackwood live on the outskirts of a small, insular Vermont village. Six years ago, their parents, brother and aunt were poisoned by arsenic during a family dinner. Constance was charged but cleared of the murders; the culprit has never been found. The villagers hate the Blackwoods. Is it fear? Is it jealousy? Is it their aloofness? All three?

The story is narrated by Merricat and grasping who’s the crazy one here is well-nigh impossible. It is the forgetful uncle Julian or the domestic goddess Constance? Is it the cruel villagers or the detached Merricat with her buried silver coins? Enter cousin Charlie and soon the Blackwood’s quiet, secluded life is turned upside down.

There’s nothing as disturbing as horror mixed with the familiar, the comforting. The more spice cookies Constance bakes, the creepier it gets. Most of this novel evolves around domesticity: endless jam making, baking and dusting of fragile Dresden figurines and…dressing.

On Tuesdays and Fridays I went into the village, and on Thursday, which was my most powerful day, I went into the big attic and dressed in their clothes.

Jackson shows us that horror doesn’t have to involve dark alleyways or abandoned churchyards; it can be right here in your kitchen. 

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson is published by Penguin Modern Classics, 176 pages.

I listened to the audiobook version of We Have Always Lived in the Castle beautifully narrated by Bernadette Dunne. Highly recommended.

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