Thursday, May 26, 2011

Review of the Day: We Have Always Lived in the Castle

It is hard to review a book that I so horribly misinterpreted that I ruined it for myself.

Shirley Jackson's dark masterpiece, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, is a physiologically chilling little novel about the remnants of the Blackwood family, living in their mansion, ostracized by the villagers in their small New England town.

The completely unreliable (unhinged) narrator is 18-year-old Mary Katherine, known as Merricat, who floats around acting like a spooky 12-year-old while her older, long-suffering sister Constance spends her days cooking, putting up preserves, caring for their ill uncle, and otherwise tending the house she is too agoraphobic to leave. Meanwhile, poor demented old Uncle Julian obsesses over his memorialization of the day, six years earlier, when most of the family died.

This is a terrifically creepy book; not scary, but a real psychological study of family madness.

Unfortunately – and this is not a spoiler – I thought it was about ghosts. I thought that Marricat, or maybe all three of the Blackwells – were ghosts and that this was a ghost story. So when people came to visit them, or Merricat went into town, I pondered whether the people could really see them, or just the things they moved around, or just what was going on.

I was completely wrong. The Blackwells aren't ghosts. This isn't a ghost story. I have no idea where I got such a notion. But because I was looking at the story through such a distorting prism, I missed the opportunity to experience the book as it was intended. Drat!


If you would like your review of this book listed here, please leave a comment with a link and I will add it.


This is on Erica Jong's list of Top 100 20th Century Novels by Women.


  1. I think a lot of people begin reading this book thinking it's a ghost story because of Jackson's most famous book, The Legend of Hill House.

    Here is my review of it:

  2. For some reason I had no preconceptions when I picked up this book and I enjoyed it a lot. I can see where going into it expecting a ghost story would make it problematic. Sorry the preconception interfered with your enjoyment of it.

  3. That's really interesting! I'm trying to think if I've ever gone into a book with a misconception and had it affect my reading. I'll think some more.

  4. That's kind of hilarious, actually. But sad for you, that you weren't able to enjoy a book you otherwise would have.

  5. This reminds me a little of when I was a teaching assistant and one of the students wrote a paper on the charming farmyard story "Animal Farm." The teacher was going to fail her, but I argued her case: you can't knock somebody for not having the key to a novel that needs one.

    Except, I guess that in this case you actually brought a key of your own.

    Whatever. I'm intrigued!


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