Books discussed in this essay: We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Shirley Jackson; 1962). Spoilers galore.
We don’t usually think about how things got they way they are in the fairy tales and ghost stories we are most familiar with. The witches have always lived in their gingerbread houses deep in the woods. The restless spirits have always haunted their ruined castles. In We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Jackson tells us about the time before the fairy tale begins. She takes us into the haunted castle before it becomes a ruin, before children dare each other to go up on the vine-covered porch and possibly disturb the ghosts inside.
Still, even this story starts with a legend. Six years before the story begins, the Blackwood family sat down to dinner. By dessert, most of them were dead of arsenic poisoning. The arsenic had been put in the sugar bowl. Only the eldest daughter, Constance, her younger sister, Mary Katherine (or Merricat), and their uncle Julian survived. Julian, however, was crippled and suffered ever after from dementia and an obsession with that “last night.” Constance was accused of the crime, but acquitted due to insufficient evidence. She returned home to take care of her sister and uncle, and the three of them kept the house unchanged, stopped in time, stuffed with the remnants of the dead.
The local villagers–and there always is some unnamed village in these stories–had convicted Constance of the crime in their hearts. Indeed, the locals always hated the Blackwoods, who were wealthy and aloof and strange. Merricat in particular suffered their taunts and ostracization whenever she went into the village for food and library books. The children had even made up a rhyme to torment her.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!
We Have Always Lived in the Castle exists in the unreal world of the fairy tale. The Blackwood sisters live on the edge of a wood. The path through it is barred to the villagers by locked gates. Like witches, the girls keep a familiar, a black cat. They know the names and uses of all the wild herbs and mushrooms, especially the poisonous ones. Constance is constantly in her kitchen, baking gingerbread, stirring a bubbling cauldron of soup.
While there are no supernatural elements in the story, it is suffused with an atmosphere of magic. Merricat speaks words of power, nails talismans to trees, and buries significant items to ward off evil–meaning the outside world. Perhaps her magic really works. By the end of the story, her barriers successfully keep she and her sister safe in their isolated house, where no one can reach them.
But before that end, a change must come, one that Merricat senses even before it arrives, forewarned by bad omens. That change is the arrival of their cousin, Charles. Merricat sees Charles as a ghost or demon, a grotesque caricature of their dead father returned to life. In reality, he is nothing more than an ordinary man, boorish and greedy, and like many men, he gets offended when everyone does not fall in line with his notions of how the world should be. The witches are not the monstrous ones in this inside-out fairy tale–the normal people are.
Jackson channels some of Frankenstein as well, when Charles’s arrival sets in motion a chain of events climaxing in an enraged mob of villagers attacking the Blackwood house and driving the two girls into the woods. But unlike Frankenstein’s monster, the Blackwood sisters embrace their differences and their consequent isolation from the world. They come to call the people outside “strangers”; the monsters are outside the walls, not in.
This is a ghost story told from the inside out. By the end, the Blackwood sisters, still alive, are nonetheless haunting their ruined house: “Our house was a castle, turreted and open to the sky.” Parents tell their children stories about the sister-spectres, how they capture and eat naughty children. Offerings are left as baskets of food, a la “Red Riding Hood,” to appease the spirits.
We readers know that the two sisters have not always lived in the castle, that indeed the castle was once just a house. But by the end, we come to believe they will always live there, just like the old fairy tales and ghost stories live on in retelling after retelling.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a short, tight novel, not a word of its 130 pages wasted. It was Jackson’s final novel, and many believe that it was her masterpiece. While it echoes those old stories we know by heart, this is a story we’ve never heard before, at least not told in this way.
Is there an attraction in the “happily ever after” ending, the idea of walling oneself up away from the world? Surely there must have been for Jackson, who toward the end of her life became an agoraphobe and didn’t leave her bedroom for several months. Sometimes there is for me as well, when I am confronted in my morning newspaper with the banal evil that human beings are capable of. No wonder Constance and Merricat are happy. How nice it must be to live in the fairy tale, to be the ghosts in the story, to have found the way to the moon.