I am not usually drawn to horror novels or even to novels which approach horror. I don’t particularly like books with a lot of psychological tension either. I am, therefore, not entirely sure why I found that I had at some point purchased We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson but as it has been hanging around on my Kindle for a couple of years I felt that this month’s 12 in 12 Challenge to read stand-alone novels was the ideal opportunity to see what I thought of this book which is widely regarded as a gothic masterpiece.
Mary Katherine, Merrycat, lives with her sister and her Uncle Julian in the family home. Her family live apart from the town in location but also in attitude. The townspeople despise the family and Merrycat’s visit to fetch groceries becomes a regular nightmare. Her sister Constance is agoraphobic and her Uncle Julian is confined to a wheelchair and is slowly losing touch with reality.
This is a short book but it is long on atmosphere. From the beginning you know that the rest of the family have been poisoned some years ago and that Constance was accused but cleared of the crime after a trial. What you don’t know is whether it was that event which wounded these three people or whether they were wounded before and that caused the tragedy. What you do know is that they live an increasingly bizarre life. Constance wants to do nothing other than cook for the others. Uncle Julian is obsessed with the murder trial and thinks of nothing else. Merrycat performs superstitious rituals to keep the family safe.
Into this strange situation comes Cousin Charles who is obviously after the family money and wants to get it by seducing Constance and sidelining Merrycat. He is as much of a grotesque as the other characters as he talks of punishing Merrycat and locking Uncle Julian away. It is obvious that something is going to happen from the beginning of the book and Charles is the catalyst.
I found this book compelling and also very creepy reading. The author really knows how to set up a situation and then deliver a dramatic ending. There are lots of questions left unanswered but that is the nature of the genre and the book is well crafted to leave the reader slightly freaked out but satisfied. I appreciate that this isn’t a horror book in the way that many others are but it was near enough to horror for me !