It is a testament to Shirley Jackson’s talent that she could pack so much power into such a short book. Consuming a mere one hundred forty-six pages (in my edition), she deftly sketches a village, its inhabitants, and a peculiar family with a dark legacy.
Merricat Blackwood and her older sister Constance live in an elegant old mansion with their invalid uncle Julian. They are the only survivors of a terrible event that robbed them of their parents and siblings six years earlier. Yet, all are content except Merricat, who must endure the taunts and accusations of villagers on her regular errands into town. She compensates by withdrawing into the woods with her cat Jonas. There is a snobbishness about the Blackwoods that sticks in the craw of their working class neighbors.
It soon becomes clear that something is wrong with this trio. Merricat has nailed one of her father’s account books to a tree as a kind of totem. She buries packages of marbles and silver dollars in the woods. She dreams of a winged bird carrying her to a new life on the moon.
Uncle Julian, who is writing a book about the events of that dark day, enthusiastically describes them to a couple of townspeople attempting to persuade Constance to abandon her reclusive life. Constance is devoted to Merricat despite her fits of temper and takes care of Julian, who is obviously far down the road of dementia.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle unfolds with an internal logic that almost makes the pages turn by themselves. By the time you realize what happened six years ago and what may happen next, you may find yourself in complete sympathy with the Blackwoods.
I purchased this book as an afterthought to its more famous cousins The Haunting of Hill House and The Lottery. Prospective horror writers could learn a lot about understatement from this novel. Except for one brief instance of profanity, I found it as close to perfection as a tale of darkness can be.