In preparing for a class on gothic elements in fiction, I pulled an old book from my shelves. I’d gone searching for Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, but I found myself drawn to We Have Always Lived in the Castle instead. Have you read this book? I don’t think I’ve read it in more than thirty years, but once I flipped it open I couldn’t put it down.
Lordy, it’s amazing.
It’s a slim book. My paperback copy comes in at just 173 pages. It’s the perfect length to read in one long sitting. And once you start reading it, you will not want to stop.
Here is an excerpt from the back cover copy on my edition:
What you are holding in your hand is no mere book—it is an item of black magic. Once you have opened its cover, you will be placed under a spell that cannot be broken until you turn the last page…
“Under a spell” is exactly how I felt as I read and I was so grateful to be able to finish the book in a day’s time. I’ve got nothing against a thick book, but there is something lovely about a short novel. This one is exactly the right length, particularly since it sends your heart pounding every time you pick it up. If it went on much longer, it might be dangerous for the reader.
Its narrator is eighteen-year-old Mary Katherine Blackwood (Merricat), who lives in a secluded mansion with her sister and elderly uncle. How they came to live this way is only part of the mystery. And it isn’t a mystery in the traditional sense. There’s no whodunnit. The crime that sets this story in motion happened six years earlier and there is nothing left to investigate.
Mary spends her days roaming the woods with her cat and practicing a sort of superstitious magic that she seems to make up as she goes along. She buries coins and talismans. She nails family heirlooms to the trees to ward off evil. She dreams of living on the moon. She lives by a set of rules that seem arbitrary until the moment they begin to make sense. She isn’t allowed to prepare food or to enter her uncle’s room. Sometimes, especially when she has to venture into the nearby village to return library books and shop for food, she entertains dark thoughts about the people who whisper and glare as she passes them. She wishes them dead in the same way she wishes her sister will make her a rum cake after dinner. But Mary is generally happy with her life until a forgotten cousin shows up at the front door, upending her comfortable routine. All of this builds to a riotous climax and an extremely satisfying ending.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle was first published in 1962. The scenes of gossip, judgment, and group hysteria could easily take place in today’s social media-obsessed world. It’s a shame that Shirley Jackson died just a few years later at the age of 48. We Have Always Lived in the Castle was her last novel. It’s a stunner. If you haven’t read it, you must. If, like me, you haven’t read it since high school, you should pick it up again. It’s hot outside and this book will give you a good chill.