Tuesday Terror! We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

“Something wicked this way comes…”

I had intended to review a short story by Susan Hill today, but by half-way through this book, it was clear it had to be this week’s…

Tuesday Terror!

Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!

we have always lived in the castleWith all the charm and tripping lightness of a fairy dance, Shirley Jackson lures the unsuspecting reader through an enchanted garden into a world of insanity, witchery and murder. The author has taken the elements of Gothic and turned them on their heads, creating a world where the sun shines so brightly that it’s only gradually the reader feels the chill seeping into her bones. No ruined mediaeval castle filled with cobwebby gloom here – this castle is a lovely house, tastefully decorated in white and gold, with interiors so clean that they sparkle in the endless sunshine pouring through the high and plentiful windows. Three people live here (though once there were more) protected not just by the fence that surrounds the grounds, but by the buried charms and magical words that Merricat, our narrator, uses to keep the world out.

I am walking on buried treasure, I thought, with the grass brushing against my hands and nothing around me but the reach of the long field with the grass blowing and the pine woods at the end; behind me was the house, and far off to my left, hidden by the trees and almost out of sight, was the wire fence our father had built to keep people out.

Merricat survived the crime that is at the heart of the story – the wholesale poisoning by arsenic of most of her family when she was just 12. Now she lives with her sister Constance, who everyone assumes is guilty of the crime, even though she was tried and acquitted. The third member of the household is Uncle Julian, another survivor, although he has been left disabled by the experience. While Merricat, now 18, runs childlike and free in the grounds of the house with her constant companion, Jonas the cat, Constance is the homemaker, always cooking and baking, and caring for both Merricat and their uncle. Uncle Julian is writing a memoir of the day of the poisoning, a task made difficult by his failing and confused memory. It is through Uncle Julian’s ramblings and Merricat’s hints and suggestions that the reader gradually gets a picture of what happened.

Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson

But regardless of truth or proof, Constance has been tried and found guilty by the villagers. The family were never liked – they fenced themselves in and the villagers out – so now the villagers have an ideal excuse to vent their bitterness. On Merricat’s twice weekly trip to the village for supplies, she is shunned by the adults and jeered at by the children. But once home, back in the enchanted space inside the fence, the little family is safe and happy. Until one day, Merricat’s protections fail, and Cousin Charles comes to visit, bringing with him all the sanity and coarseness of the real world. And when Charles’ arrival awakens new desires in Constance, Merricat’s childlike superstitions turn towards something much darker…

Thursday was my most powerful day. It was the right day to settle with Charles. In the morning Constance decided to make spice cookies for dinner; that was too bad, because if any of us had known we could have told her not to bother, that Thursday was going to be the last day.

Merricat is a unique narrator, though much in the Gothic tradition of the lunatic telling her tale. But though we are forced to recognise the insanity that lives within her imaginings, there is a charm and air of childish innocence about her that leads us to sympathise with her totally; the most disturbing thing about the story is that, though we know someone in the house has committed this awful crime, we can’t condemn – we are firmly on the side of Merricat and her family and against the rest of the world. As the story progresses, the sunshine gradually fades into something very disquieting and truly spine-tingling.

A wonderfully written book that distorts and plays with the reader’s expectations, this reads to me like the ‘true’ story behind the creation of the familiar ‘witch’ myths. We see the story from the inside, but if we look closely we also see how Merricat and Constance would have been viewed by the villagers – two strange women, one suspected of a horrific crime, the other, accompanied everywhere by her knowing cat, using talismans and magical words to ward off strangers. As I left Merricat’s world and returned shivering to my own, it seemed when I looked backwards that perhaps the house was made of gingerbread after all…

Hansel-and-gretel-rackham

To see the great review that inspired me to read this, please click through to LitBeetle’s blog. Thanks, LitBeetle!

Fretful porpentine rating 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating         😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Next week on Tuesday Terror! – Susan Hill

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

27 thoughts on “Tuesday Terror! We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

  1. FictionFan – I’m so glad you highlighted some of Shirley Jackson’s work. I think it doesn’t get nearly the attention it should, honestly. Such a skill at inviting the reader in and slamming the door behind, if you know what I mean. And she did it without being gratuitous, too.

    • I’d never actually heard of her till I read litbeetle’s review. You’re so right – no gore, no vampires and sneaks up on you just when you’re least expecting it! I’ll certainly be looking at more of her work.

  2. Stellar review! This line is truly amazing: “The author has taken the elements of Gothic and turned them on their heads, creating a world where the sun shines so brightly that it’s only gradually the reader feels the chill seeping into her bones.”

    I’m completely interested. What happened? Who did it? I must needs to know! (I don’t think I’d trust Constance’s cooking.)

  3. I’m so glad you read it! Fabulous review, by the way. It’s like you’ve inspired me to read it again in some kind of vicious circle of book recommendations…

  4. I have gone off you big time, having been frogmarched by your review towards my shopping basket. First the Reginald Hill (a big book) and now this. Yes I DID enjoy the Hill, very much, and I(‘m sure i will enjoy this, but have you no shame, or pity at all for such a weak willed one with such a towering inferno pile of books all whimpering, bleating, screaming, pleading to be read. The real ones get landed on by leaping cats, and topple, and as for the Kindle, well the pages and pages and pages of tities waiting for perusal are daunting.

    I think the only option (at least it would do for the real books) is for me to come back as a proper bookworm. Perhaps that is what bookworms are. Reincarnated weak willed souls with more books to read than a lifetime allowed.

    At least with your next week (Susan Hill) the chances are I will already have read this. But, please, do not review her best, in case I get lured to a re-read

    I had never heard of Shirley Jackson, so thank you (or not – since if i enjoy it, I’m going to be forced to get the back catalogue, aren’t I?

    And now, i suppose, i’m going to have to head on over to she-who-introduced-you-to-this’s blog.

    Oh I do hope there are no more treasures there!

    • No, no!! Don’t go to litbeetle’s!! You’ll never get out alive! She’s become one of the bloggers (like yourself) who tempts me way too often…

      I’d never heard of Jackson either – isn’t it odd how some great books just don’t become well known? On a different note, Matt popped in to say Fallen Land got a rave review in the New York Review this week – so maybe it’ll take off at last.

      Glad you enjoyed Reginald Hill – did you know he’s written loads and loads (and loads) of books? I think you probably need to add them all to your TBR… 😉

    • This is a really creepy one, without being in any way gruesome, and very well written. If you read it, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did…Merricat is still inside my head…

  5. Great review. I have only read one book of Shirley Jackson’s and it was so long ago that I cannot now remember the title. It wasn’t fiction , though, but a hilarious snap shot of her family life – she had one husband, five children, a huge dog and numerous cats, all as mad as hatters. It was one of those books which reduced me to a howling, sobbing blob from laughing so much – there is a story about a blanket which is so funny that it ought to be banned on public health grounds .I didn’t know she had written anything else – I shall now investigate.

    • I get the feeling she’s a bit better known on the other side of the pond – but still not as much as i’d expect on the basis of this one. I’ll look out for the one you mention though – I can imagine she could be very funny. She made me laugh in this from time to time, just before she shivered me timbers…

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