“I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.”
We have always lived in the castle was my first Shirley Jackson novel, a short story of 150-odd pages about the odd, outcast and quickly dwindling Blackwood family who live in their large, crumbling family home on the outskirts of what seems to be a really lovely suburban town. Some six years before the events of the story take place, tragedy befalls the Blackwood’s leaving 4 of the 7 family members dead after a deadly dose serving of arsenic finds its way into the sugar bowl at dinner. All signs point to the Blackwood’s oldest daughter Constance, but she is acquitted of the mass murder of her parents, aunt and brother and allowed to return home to care for her surviving uncle Julian who will forever suffer with the after effects of the poisoning and her little sister Mary Katherine (Merricat), both of whom are fierce contenders in the ‘mad as a bag if cat’s competition. The family are happy in their seclusion from society that seems to move on around them, leaving them forgotten and entirely unchanged and perhaps it is this that turns the town against them once the spotlight of scandal draws public attention there way.
For me there’s something so familiar about Jackson writing that even when it’s so creepy that it makes me jumpy, I can’t help but find it comforting at the same time. The relationships within the Blackwood family are so caring and loving and innocent that I wanted to be a part of it and as with all of the books I’ve read by this author (and for me, this was a re-read) the setting of the story is almost like a character in itself, providing a backdrop that sets the tone for the events of the book. The atmosphere created by the house not only dictates how the characters behave and are perceived by their neighbors, but also how we respond as readers to their actions that often conflict with their environment and therefor make them horrific and shocking.
I don’t usually reread books, but I am so glad I made an exception for this. Shirley Jackson is the absolute master of the short story, she knows exactly how to build tension to its highest peak even and especially when nothing is happening. Her characters are always so entirely unique, always touched with just the right amount of madness to make you unsure if they are actually mad at all or if it’s just that everybody else is. The suffocating, relentless watchfulness of the townspeople make them seem surreal and alien in their contrast from our heroines who just want to live a quiet life away from them and without their veneer of placid ‘normalcy’ that defines the very nature of civilized society and yet is always oh so quick to descend into violence.