We Have Always Lived in the Castle is one of Shirley Jackson’s masterpieces yet it has never achieved the fame of The Haunting of Hill House or The Lottery, her over-anthologized short story that most school children in America have read, dissected, and studied. And that’s a shame because it is truly a chilling masterpiece and odd story with what is known in literature as an ‘unreliable narrator’ – a narrator who cannot be trusted because she herself isn’t trustworthy.
(At this point I must announce SPOILER ALERT. If you do not like spoilers, read this after you’ve seen the movie or read the book. It’s impossible to write or speak of this story without some type of spoiler.)
The story is told from the point of view of 18-year-old Mary Catherine Blackwood, a reclusive, odd young woman who plants fetishes such as her father’s watch and coins around the Blackwood’s property to cast spells of protection.
Mary Catherine lives with her older sister, Constance, and that is where the plot takes off. For Constance was accused of murdering her entire family save Uncle Julian (who survived) and Mary Catherine. Arsenic added to the family sugar bowl poisoned all; Constance purchased the arsenic, rat poison, as she murmurs in one scene “to kill the rats.”
Only Uncle Julian survives and he’s confined to a wheelchair and yes, also slightly cracked. We have a family of crazy people here. Constance suffers from agoraphobia thanks to the awful cruelty and hounding of the villagers locally who seem to loathe the Blackwood family. Perhaps that’s due to their father, John Blackwood, who seems to have brought sadism to a new extreme by pushing off all of Constance’s beaus including a young man who was sweet on her. John Blackwood had the boy fired, stripped of all his possessions, and pretty much ruined. So much for wishing his daughter’s happiness.
Although not much of the backstory before the fateful night of roasted lamb and blackberry dessert dinner is mentioned, one gets the impression, reading between the lines of the novel or watching the acting of the characters in the movie, that there is much, much more cruelty lurking behind the Blackwood’s facade.
There has to be to make both of these girls absolutely crazy.
Constance, agoraphobic, who smiles sweetly and waits on everyone hand and foot. Julian, who mumbles to himself constantly replaying the fateful evening, seeing his brother John lurking in every corner.
And of course, Mary Catherine, with her bug-eyed stare and her short, clipped speech.
Into this world comes Cousin Charles, a fast-talking young man driving a sporty automobile. The book did a better job of describing the backstory here: in the novel, Charles is a fortune finder, a gold digger whose parents left him penniless and who has heard rumors of the Blackwood fortune kept in a large safe in the house (John Blackwood didn’t believe in banks.)
Charles arrives and sweet talks Constance, but neither Mary Catherine nor Julian fall for his charm. He’s a lout. He moves into John’s bedroom, wears his suits, and harasses Mary Catherine for her oddities like burying a box of silver coins under a broken back step.
As the story progresses, we see the persecution of the townspeople when Mary Catherine walks into town for the weekly grocery trip and the burgeoning tension between Charles and Mary Catherine. She begins asking him nicely to leave; when that fails, she throws dirt, leaves, and water on his bed. And when that fails, she casually knocks his lit pipe — her father’s — into the wastebasket in his bedroom starting a conflagration that kindles a blaze in both the physical house and in the minds of the townspeople who flock to the impressive sight of the Blackwood mansion burning to ashes.
There’s no resolution to the story except to learn the true identity of the person who put the arsenic in the sugar bowl and the reasons why. Here the movie fails to truly hit the right note until the very last frame when Mary Catherine gives a half-second grin, her one, and only smile in the entire hour and a half movie. When she realizes that Constance and she will be together forever, she smiles. She is safe. She has chased away the town bullies from the door, she has secured the castle fortifications both real and imaginary, and she is safe.
Oh, the nuances of this story get me every time…the castle as a metaphor for the mind, the aching backstory that longs to be told but never is explicitly mentioned.
The movie does justice to the novel and the acting by the women playing Constance and Mary Catherine is excellent. I found Cousin Charles too good looking and too sincere in the movie; he comes across better in the book as a fortune-finder who will stop at nothing to grab at the Blackwood money. And in the book, Uncle Julian is portrayed as slightly older, but the actor playing him does a great job swinging between past and present in a seamless rambling monologue.
There are some parts of the movie that feel slow even for this fan of the book but all in all, a faithful retelling of a story that’s difficult to put into the visual medium of a movie. It is well done, if not a horror or ghost story like The Haunting of Hill House. The horror is, instead, one of the mind: of two women locked into a family that has constricted them to the point where they must literally blockade themselves into a crumbling mansion.
My new novel, “I See You,” will be available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions on October 27, 2019. It is Book 2 of the Majek Family stories that started in “I Believe You.” Don’t miss it! It’s a hauntingly good tale in which the Majeks must solve a 50-year old cold case of a missing Down Syndrome child, lost on one of Long Island’s famous estates.