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We Have Always Lived in the Castle - Shirley Jackson (2009)

Sometimes, the TGBC crew give you just the kick in your pants you need to read something that’s been on your list for ages. For me, that was ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’ by Shirley Jackson, and it did not disappoint. Jackson’s final novel, published just three years before her death, is a brilliant piece of chilling, atmospheric horror. You see, 6 years ago the rest of the Blackwood family were murdered, poisoned with arsenic at the dinner table. Ever since then, the sisters Constance and Mary Katherine (Merricat) and the last member of the family, a frail uncle Julian, have survived in their enormous gothic mansion almost entirely alone. Their days are carefully ordered and Merricat keeps the rest of the world at bay using what seems to be witchcraft, burying her talismans of power and nailing things to trees. That is, until a money-grubbing relative rears his ugly head and sends Merricat’s carefully ordered world off its axis. 

Narrated entirely by Merricat, Jackson subtly layers psychosis, dependency, obsession and trauma into the central relationship between Merricat and her sister Constance. The terrible truth of what happened to the family ties them together tighter than the bonds of blood. Constance, an agoraphobic who never leaves the grounds, provides a solid object for the strange, mercurial Merricat to orbit around, ensuring that neither can ever leave the other. The village surrounding the house is seemingly populated by vile and cruel people who take delight in tormenting Merricat on her weekly errands, seemingly because of what happened to the family. (A common in theme in Jackson’s other books, who famously thought very little of small-town America.) This further contributes to the isolation of the Blackwoods, despite the best efforts of some neighbours. 

Jackson however gradually strips away the layers of delusion to reveal a far more sinister truth. The reader is on the one hand left with no doubt as to what happened to the family, that fateful day. But on the other, we are plagued by questions that the novel deliberately leaves unanswered, leaving it up to us to decide what is real and what is fiction. The final act is even more obtuse, casting a different light on the entire story and leaving us with what seems to be the origin of a ghost story, told by frightened children around fires late at night. 

Chilling, faceted and open-ended, this is a book that got better with discussion. Everybody had their own opinions on what happened, what the ending was about and really, isn’t that what a good book club book does?

Ben Archibald (Sutherland Chapter)  

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