We Have Always Lived in the Castle (#NovNov22 Short Classics Week)

Novellas in November is here! Our first weekly theme is short classics. (Leave your links with Cathy, here.)

Left over from a planned second R.I.P. post that I didn’t get a chance to finish:

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (1962)

A few years ago for the R.I.P. challenge I read The Haunting of Hill House, which is a terrific haunted house/horror novel, a genre I almost never read. I was expecting this to be more of the same from Jackson, but instead it’s a brooding character study of two sisters isolated by their scandalous family history and the suspicion of the townspeople. Narrator Merricat (Mary Katherine Blackwood) tells us in the first paragraph that she is 18, but she sounds and acts more like a half-feral child of 10 who makes shelters in the woods for her and her cat Jonas; I wasn’t sure if I should understand her to be intellectually disabled, or willfully childish, or some combination thereof.

Her older sister Constance does everything for her and for wheelchair-bound Uncle Julian, the only family they have left after most of their relatives died of poisoning six years ago. Constance stood trial for their murder and was acquitted, but the locals haven’t let the incident go and even chant a cruel rhyme whenever Merricat comes into town for shopping: “Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea? / Oh, no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.” Julian obsessively mulls over the details of the poisoning, building a sort of personal archive of tragedy, while in everyday life a curtain of dementia separates him from reality. When cousin Charles comes to visit, perhaps to get a share of the money they have hidden around the place, he threatens the idyll they’ve created, and Merricat starts joking about poisonous mushrooms…

I loved the offbeat voice and unreliable narration, and the way that the Blackwood house is both a refuge and a prison for the sisters. “Where could we go?” Merricat asks Constance when she expresses concern that she should have given the girl a more normal life. “What place would be better for us than this? Who wants us, outside? The world is full of terrible people.” As the novel goes on, you ponder who is protecting whom, and from what. There are a lot of great scenes, all so discrete that I could see this working very well as a play with just a few backdrops to represent the house and garden. It has the kind of small cast and claustrophobic setting that would translate very well to the stage.

Joyce Carol Oates’s afterword brings up an interesting point about how food is fetishized in Jackson’s fiction – I look forward to trying more of it. (Public library)

Need some more ideas of short classics? Here’s a list of favourites I posted a couple of years ago, and a Book Riot list with only a couple of overlaps.

This month I also hope to have a look through Great Short Books by Kenneth C. Davis, a selection of 58 classic and contemporary works (some of them perhaps a bit longer than our cutoff of 200 pages). It’s forthcoming from Scribner on the 22nd, but I have an e-copy via Edelweiss that I will skim.

15 responses

  1. One of my favourites. I don’t know if it helps to know that Shirley Jackson suffered from agoraphobia at times, and was obsessed with finding the perfect house, but also often saw the house as a prison… certainly I could feel all of those themes in this book.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s really interesting to consider her work in relation to her life. I actually read a biographical novel about her (Shirley by Susan Scarf Merrell) before I ever read anything of hers beyond “The Lottery.”


  2. Wow, I’m surprised We Have Always Lived In The Castle qualifies as a novella. I loved it but it didn’t feel like a quick read.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. 145 pages? (I wish I’d kept a record before I returned it to the library.) I took my time over it, but I suppose it could technically be a one-sitting read.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This is a terrific book.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agreed — it was fantastic. Now I know why everyone raves about Shirley Jackson.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. A wonderful book. I also loved The Sundial, the only other by her I’ve read.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks — a good recommendation for my next one.


  5. Like you, I loved Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House, which I think is one of the best horror novels ever. Castle is equally good, but, as you say, more overtly psychological than Hill House; not really a horror novel at all. BTW my edition of Castle doesn’t have Oates’ afterword. I’m jealous!
    I’ve been meaning to read a Jackson biography (or, more realistically, skim one!); I’ll have to keep Merrell’s in mind.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Merrell’s is a fictional account but perhaps a good introduction if you think a full biography would be too much of an undertaking.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I love this book. I want to reread it! Jackson is a favorite.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I love the idea of staging it as a play. I think that could be brilliant. Better than a movie… the whole book is like a performance.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. […] We Have Always Lived at the Castle by Shirley Jackson – Rebecca at Bookish Beck […]


  9. Merricat is a terrific character – she does seem very childlike at times but she’s also pretty shrewd at judging other people.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I love this book. Such great writing.

    Liked by 1 person

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