The Weird Sisters – “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” by Shirley Jackson
I wanted to review this book during October’s “30 Days of Horror,” but couldn’t locate a copy. Fortunately, the book has been re-released in a new edition with the gorgeous art to the left, and I’m delighted I finally got my chance. This is a book that will stay with me forever.
Heads-up. The following summary is going to spoil EVERYTHING.
Mary Katherine (Merricat) Blackwood, her sister Constance, and their elderly Uncle Julian live in a castle on the outskirts of a small town. Six years earlier, the sisters became outcasts after their parents, aunt, and younger brother were poisoned with arsenic in the sugar bowl at a family dinner. Constance, who doesn’t use sugar, was charged and acquitted of the murders. Of course, being a small town, the village people think Constance did it, which has led to her not leaving the house in six years except to tend her garden.
When a long-lost cousin, Charles, appears, it’s obvious he’s after the family fortune (kept in a safe in the house.) Merricat immediately doesn’t like him, but Constance is vulnerable and seems to fall for Charles’ friendly act. Eventually, things reach a point where Merricat deliberately knocks over Charles’ pipe, setting fire to the house. Uncle Julian dies of a heart attack during the fire, and the sisters flee to the woods for safety. When Charles realizes he can’t make off with the heavy safe, he flees. During the fire, the town gathers and the scene becomes hellish as the townspeople help destroy the house as it burns – breaking windows and items and looting.
In the aftermath of the fire, the sisters return to the house. They board up all entrances to the house and block off the areas that are no longer of any use to them, proceeding to make a small life together in whats left of their destroyed house. It’s revealed that Merricat was actually the one who poisoned the family all those years ago, knowing Constance didn’t use sugar.
Shirley Jackson, in addition to being a master of story craft, was particularly good at themes of persecution, and of “other-ness.” If you’ve read her most famous story, “The Lottery,” you know what I mean. An agoraphobic herself, clearly she had a thing or two to say about the outside world and what it held.
“We Have Always Lived in the Castle” is a modern gothic masterpiece. Stunningly detailed, and undeniably dark, it’s a great piece from a writer too good to forget. Merricat and Constance are unforgettable characters, and their story is a powerful statement about how we define happiness. Though the sisters may not be out and about all the time, they can be perfectly happy. Not everyone needs the world to be happy.
In awesome news, the story carries on. Last September, Yale Repertory Theater premiered a new musical version of the story. Check out video and other information at their site.