The remainder of the Blackwood family is odd, no doubt about it. Insular, hermit-like, sisters Constance and Mary Katherine and their elderly uncle Julian have withdrawn from society, with good reason, after the shocking death by poisoning of the rest of the family six years ago. Constance was acquitted of the murder, but the townsfolk still blame her, and she no longer leaves the house except to go into her garden. Mary Catherine (or Merricat, as she’s known within the family) runs the errands, reluctantly, but out of necessity and the desire to protect her sister. Whispers and stares follow Merricat when she comes into the village twice a week for necessities; children taunt her with a cruel nursery rhyme; certain bullying adults make a point of taunting her more directly. Merricat has her own way of dealing with this unpleasantness: she imagines virtually everyone she encounters as dead and takes pleasure in this internal vision of bodies strewn about the village or across her doorstep. Mary spends a lot of time alone and in her head, creating magical charms and engaging in secret rituals to protect herself and her sister from the world.
One day, despite all Mary’s efforts, their cousin Charles appears at their doorstep. He is a disruption and a threat to their future peace, and Mary resolves to make him go away. Her attempts to rid them and their house of Charles’ presence end in catastrophe and set the stage for the disquieting and eerie finale.
I imagines volume can be (and have been) written about this short book’s themes, subtext and symbolism; Mary Catherine’s and Constance’s respective pathologies; and the archetypes represented by each character, major and minor. I have no intention of delving into that morass of scholarship and analysis. All I want to say is this: Shirley Jackson has never failed to astonish me with the quiet terror and creeping unease she imbues in every page, every paragraph, of everything she wrote. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is no different.