I enjoyed reading The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson last year and her final novel ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’ published in 1962 three years before Jackson’s death tells the story of eighteen-year-old Mary Katherine “Merricat” Blackwood who lives with her older sister, Constance, and their uncle, Julian, on a large secluded estate in New England. Six years earlier, half of the Blackwood family including Merricat and Constance’s parents were poisoned when the sugar bowl used at dinner was laced with arsenic. Although Constance was acquitted of the murders, the three surviving Blackwoods remain isolated from the rest of their small village. However, the arrival of their cousin Charles threatens their future and Merricat becomes increasingly suspicious of the real reason why he has suddenly turned up out of the blue.
‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’ doesn’t feature the supernatural elements which were central to ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ but the novels definitely share a disturbing and unsettling atmosphere of ambiguity, dread and weirdness. In particular, Merricat is a fascinating character and an unreliable one. On the cusp of adulthood and deeply affected by past events, she appears to be naive in some respects but also very knowing in others and the matter-of-fact bluntness of her tone as a narrator makes it easy to forget that some of the more alarming details she reveals are as twisted and shocking as they are.
Since her acquittal, Constance has become agoraphobic never venturing further than the garden while Julian is an invalid with dementia who obsessively recounts the day of the family tragedy, leaving Merricat to manage the household herself and face the whispers of gossiping villagers whenever she goes out shopping. The small-minded prejudices of their neighbours and superficial concerns of their cousin only increases the Blackwood family’s desire to be left alone. While the identity of the real poisoner is no surprise, the conclusion is odd and unexpected – a fitting ending of sorts if there can be such a thing for the Blackwoods.
I think I enjoyed ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ more while reading it but ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’ is a brilliant evocation of the fear of the unknown and has been lingering in my mind since I finished it. I’m planning to read some of Shirley Jackson’s short stories in the near future as well as Ruth Franklin’s biography about her life.