Because Shirley Jackson never disappoints when it comes to specializing in chilling tales detailing the macabre nature of existence and humanity itself, it is almost impossible to choose a favorite work of hers for the purposes of “celebrating” Halloween. Of course, for many, celebrations of this pagan holiday have been essentially cancelled due to, well, you know. But because this year is so specific with its emphasis on sequestering oneself at home for fear of infection of “the other,” there can be no better pick from Jackson’s oeuvre than We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
Centered on two sisters, Mary Katherine “Merricat” and Constance Blackwood, who live alone in their family mansion with their only remaining relative, Uncle Julian, the claustrophobic setting contributes to the palpable build of the tension. And oh… there is another remaining relative of the Blackwoods: Cousin Charles. But he comes into the plot later, after Merricat paints us an idyllic portrait of life at the Blackwood “castle.” An Elysian existence interrupted only by Merricat’s “occasional” (twice a week or so) forced visits into the heart of the village when she must stock up on provisions and library books (that will go unread) for the house. As the sole liaison between Constance and the outside world, it’s evident from the beginning that Merricat does take a perverse thrill in Constance’s agoraphobic nature. And, naturally, who wouldn’t be agoraphobic after the town you live in essentially comes at you with pitchforks and torches every time you appear before them?
Convinced that the horrific event that took place at the Blackwood home six years earlier, during which four family members were murdered at the dinner table via arsenic poisoning (delivered into the communal sugar bowl and individually sprinkled on the blackberry dessert), is Constance’s fault, the townspeople look upon her and her sister as something like spawns of Satan. Because Constance was the one in charge of preparing and serving meals, she is automatically deemed the culprit, though is eventually acquitted while Merricat waits things out in an orphanage, assumed blameless because she was sent to her room without dinner for being “insubordinate.” To make their feelings about the “weird sisters” perfectly clear, the rhyme that the locals have so “generously” come up with to indicate their theories on what happened the illustrious night in question is rife with derision: “Merricat, said Constance, would you like a cup of tea?/Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me./Merricat, said Constance, would you like me to go to sleep?/Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!”
Merricat does her best to steel herself against this harassment, even when she’s cornered by the likes of the goading Jim Donnell, a ringleader of the tormentors—in addition to a “well-respected” man for being a firefighter. But all of this distress in the public space is worth it to Merricat for the simple relief of finding her way back to the safe haven that is the Blackwood home. To stay within its paradisiacal confines is to forget the rest of the cruel world outside of it. Jonas, the resident cat of the abode, certainly seems to agree as well, never straying too far from Merricat’s side whenever she’s walking among the garden or woods of the property. It is this feline that seems to be her “familiar” in Merricat’s honorary role as a witch. For she is keen on practicing “sympathetic magic,” putting up charms around the house to protect it from infiltrators and other potential “infections” of the space.
Unfortunately, a book she hangs upon a tree branch for protection falls one day, and Merricat can sense an unpleasant change afoot. That being the sudden appearance of Cousin Charles, whom Merricat can instantly sense is a threat to their utopian existence removed from the savagery of those who adhere to the tenets of so-called “society.” Constance, however, is more easily taken in by the honeyed words of Charles, who can see that she’s the one to curry favor with in her position as head of household. It doesn’t take long for him to set up camp like a permanent resident as he belittles the sickly and wheelchair-bound Julian for his obsession with his manuscript (consisting of recounting the events of that terrible night from his perspective as sole survivor who actually consumed the arsenic) in between turning Constance against Merricat and her childish ways. Indeed, at age eighteen, Merricat seems caught in a state of arrested development, as though never advancing much beyond the age of ten or so.
Still, she’s mature enough to know that Charles’ presence is a disgusting scourge upon the tranquility of the house that must be purged at all costs, remarking to herself, “There had not been this many words sounded in our house for a long time, and it was going to take a while to clean them out.” Even if, by cleaning them out, it means burning the house to the ground to get Charles to leave. He with his duplicitous purposes, wanting only to ascertain if he can get any money out of the sisters and their safe.
When the villagers are finally summoned en masse to the house by Charles, crying fire, their brief burst of aid turns into rage as they proceed to decimate the “castle” after saving it. As though they wanted to be the ones responsible for destroying it rather than the fire. Their sadism and inhumanity as they decimate the Blackwoods’ lovely, insulated structure reaches a crescendo as they crowd around the sisters themselves, waiting to pounce. It is only the sudden announcement of Julian’s death that gets the townspeople to back down and return to their respective lairs.
The following morning, after sleeping in the woods, Merricat and Constance go about the business of rebuilding their old, uninfiltrated life as it was before, never to make the mistake of letting their guard down for any vicious and callous intruders again. Even though Merricat was already well-aware of the unworthwhile risks of doing so.
The lesson of the story? Trust no one but those in your innermost circle and never leave the glorious isolation of your own protected abode, where nothing and no one can hurt you unless you voluntarily let them in. A fitting message for 2020 if ever there was one, leading to the assessment, “Oh Constance, we are so happy.”