When I was fresh out of college I moved to London, with it’s dreary weather and crowded subways. Not having a lot of money at the time, I used to browse bookstores like Ottokar’s and Waterstones, but the books were just too expensive. Having no other recourse, I soon wandered into the Wandsworth/Clapham library, and after looking over their stacks for a bit, I got myself a library card. The very first book I checked out was this one: “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” by the American empress of horror fiction, Shirley Jackson.
It’s strange how, when we read a book in a certain place at a certain time of our lives, and it leaves an impression, we never forget where we were when we first read it. This book did that to me, and left an indelible impression. It always makes me think of my London days, sitting in Clapham Common Park, reading. Those days are now long gone, but this morning, as I was admiring my bookshelves, I spotted my copy of the novel, which I had purchased from an online bookseller a few years back, and it all came rushing back. That’s when I decided that a review might be fun, and might even help me to further relive those long ago days. And, sure enough, it worked.
In “We Have Always Lived In The Castle”, Jackson explores themes of isolation, persecution, and mental illness through the lives of the Blackwood family, telling an epic story of psychological horror in the process. Having had family members who have struggled with mental illness, I found myself drawn to the darkness in this novel. Perhaps that is one of the reasons I find it so impactful. But I digress.
The story takes place in a small town in New England, where the Blackwoods live in a castle after a tragedy that killed most of their family members. The main character, Mary Katherine (Merricat), is ostracized from the rest of the town because of the perception that she is responsible for the deaths. As a reader who prizes character above all other elements in a tale, I was able to identify with her. I did not have any friends or family in a strange city, and felt very isolated and ostracized at the time. Yet another reason it made such a mark on me; it felt like I was there, co-existing with the luckless Blackwoods.
The novel opens with Merricat’s perspective, as she recounts her daily routines and the various rituals she uses to maintain order in her life. Despite her isolation, Merricat has created a world for herself within the castle that is both comforting and familiar. However, her life is disrupted when her cousin, Charles, arrives. Charles is a wealthy and sophisticated man who tries to integrate himself into the Blackwood family and the town. As Charles becomes more involved in the community , Merricat begins to feel threatened by his presence. She becomes increasingly paranoid and isolated, and her behavior becomes more erratic. Meanwhile, the townspeople become more hostile and suspicious of Merricat and the Blackwoods, leading to a series of events that culminate in a dramatic confrontation.
Style and Theme
The novel is written in a style that is characterized by its dark and eerie tone, and Jackson’s use of psychological horror to delve into the human mind. Her writing style has long been praised for its unique blend of gothic and psychological elements, and for its ability to create an atmosphere of tension and unease, and she employs these skills to the utmost in this novel. The themes she explores, such as isolation and persecution, were very resonant, and are still relevant today, especially now that we know slightly more about the human psyche and our bouquet of mental maladies.
“We Have Always Lived in the Castle” is considered a classic of modern American literature and , according to my research, has been widely studied in literature classes both at home and abroad. The novel continues to be popular today, and has inspired numerous adaptations and reinterpretations in various forms of media, including film and television. It is also a perennial book club favorite.
If you are a fan of psychological horror in a gothic setting featuring a brilliantly written female protagonist, Shirley Jackson’s “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” will enthrall you. It is a complex and multi-layered novel that creatively (and disturbingly) explores the human mind and the consequences of isolation and persecution. Combine all this with Jackson’s haunting writing style, and you’ve got a classic of modern American literature that will entertain, shock, and impress you.
It certainly did that to me all those years ago, sitting on a bench in a park in an unfamiliar city, reading a book that left me cold but gave me a temporary home in the folds of its pages.
So what are you waiting for? Go give it a try. After all, the only thing to fear are the nightmares, right?
Pleasant screams, horror lovers. Thanks for reading 😈💀