Often referred to as Shirley Jackson’s finest work, We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a gothic and atmospheric novella. Mary Katherine ‘Merricat’ Blackwood lives with her elder sister Constance and decrepit Uncle Julian in their grand and isolated family home. Constance never leaves the house, and rarely receives visitors. On Merricat’s dreaded yet necessary ventures into the nearby village, she is met by her neighbours with scorn, ridicule, and fear. It is clear that these circumstances are the result of some controversial and tragic events which have befallen the Blackwood’s, and these are gradually revealed as this meditation on familial loyalty and betrayal develops.
It is the gradual revelation of this novella’s central mystery which, I think, is its great triumph. Unlike so many gothic novels which, whilst creating a general atmosphere of unease, ultimately indulge in an unexpected and dramatic reveal, the questions posed by We Have Always Lived in the Castle are answered subtly and by insidious degrees, so that by the time the truth is finally a certainty, you are left with the uncanny sensation that this new information is, in fact, already familiar. Another writer who has mastered the gradual-reveal is Maggie O’Farrell; her astonishing novel The Vanishing of Esme Lennox is similarly gothic in tone, and also deals with themes of family secrets and betrayals. I’d certainly recommend it to anyone who enjoyed this book. What I most love about We Have Always Lived in the Castle, though, is its gloriously unpredictable yet ultimately inevitable conclusion. The novella’s final sequence has an epic, myth-like quality, which is unforgettable for its dark magic.