We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson’s final novel, tells the story of two sisters, Merricat and Constance Blackwood, who live with their Uncle Julian in a giant, New England house. They are surrounded by villagers who hate them and chant nasty songs when they pass (“Merricat, said Constance, would you like to go to sleep? / Down in the boneyard ten feet deep”). The three are the only survivors of an arsenic poisoning that killed everyone else in their family. The poison was sprinkled on the sugar bowl, and the sugar was sprinkled on dessert. Constance, who never took sugar, and Merricat, who was sent to her room before supper, were unharmed. Uncle Julian, who only took a little sugar, technically survived, but both his mind and body are shadows of their former selves. Despite being hated and feared by the townspeople around them, the two sisters and their uncle live a somewhat idyllic life — that is, until a cousin named Charles comes to try and steal the family fortune.
There are so many things that one could talk about in Jackson’s final masterpiece. It is part murder mystery, part haunted-house origin story, and part, as Jackson’s biographer Judy Opphenheimer said, “paean to agoraphobia.” , We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a one of the great American Gothic novels, deftly using atmosphere and mystic — albeit mostly invented — symbolism to create tension, mystery, and unease. At the same time, it is wildly and blackly funny. The imaginative and poetically whimsical narration could lead the book to be classified as Young Adult if published today. In these ways, it strikes me as a remarkably prescient novel — a foremother to contemporary writers like Kelly Link, Neil Gaiman, and Karen Russell.
But what stands out to me the most in We Have Always Lived in the Castle is its fascinating female characters, especially the book’s narrator, Merricat, who is, for my money, one of the greatest literary creations of American fiction.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson's 1962 novel, is full of a macabre and sinister humor, and Merricat herself, its amiable narrator, is one of the great unhinged heroines of literature. Merricat has developed an idiosyncratic system of rules and protective magic, burying talismanic objects beneath the family estate, nailing them to trees, and ritualistically revisiting them. She has created a protective web to guard against the distrust and hostility of neighboring villagers. Or so she believes. But at last the magic fails. A stranger arrives—cousin Charles, with his eye on the Blackwood fortune. He disturbs the sisters' careful habits, installing himself at the head of the family table, unearthing Merricat's treasures, talking privately to Constance about "normal lives" and "boy friends." Unable to drive him away by either polite or occult means, Merricat adopts more desperate methods. The result is crisis and tragedy, the revelation of a terrible secret, the convergence of the villagers upon the house, and a spectacular unleashing of collective spite.
The sisters are propelled further into seclusion and solipsism, abandoning old habits in favor of an ever-narrowing circuit of ritual and shadow. They have themselves become talismans, to be alternately demonized and propitiated with gifts. Jackson's novel emerges less as a study in eccentricity and more—like some of her other fictions—as a powerful critique of the anxious, ruthless processes involved in the maintenance of normalcy itself.