"Merricat," said Constance, "would you like some tea?"
"Oh no, Constance, you'll poison me!"
This singsong rhyme with which the villagers taunt sisters Mary Katherine ("Merricat") and Constance invokes every creepy witch-taunting movie you've ever seen. Mary Katherine and Constance Blackwood live with their wheelchair-bound Uncle Julian in their once-grand family home. The Blackwoods have always been wealthy and apparently somewhat ostracized by the local townspeople because of it, but when almost the entire Blackwood clan is wiped out by arsenic poisoning, the survivors become outcasts, hated and shunned. It turns out that Constance was tried for the crime but acquitted; now she hides in her home, unable to face the accusing eyes and jeers of the outside world.
The story is narrated from the viewpoint of Mary Katherine, whose life is full of strange rituals and talking to her cat, Jonas. It soon becomes evident that Merricat is a little... unusual. Disturbed. One might even say, out of her freaking mind. She is fascinated with poisonous herbs, she fantasizes about living on the moon, and she wants most of all to live with her sister Constance and never see anyone else. She creates magic words, buries things in the yard, and uses other spell-like rituals to "protect" the house and her sister, and since Merricat is the one telling the story, it's not immediately clear whether she's really crazy or not.
The story unfolds slowly until you have a pretty good idea of what really happened before it is revealed, but the brooding, sinister tone of this short novel is creepy and dark and gothic, and by the end, it's not clear who the real villains are: the person who murdered an entire family, the greedy cousin who shows up looking for the supposed fortune hidden in the house, or the envious, grudging, small-minded villagers who feign concern and hospitality while mocking and slandering the Blackwood girls behind their backs (and often enough to their faces).We Have Always Lived in the Castle
isn't your typical horror story; all the deaths have already happened before the book begins, and if you are looking for elements of the supernatural, you will have to look hard. This is what you might call an American psychological thriller, where the horror is what is very subtly revealed about Merricat and Constance and the Blackwood family, and the nature of ordinary people in ordinary small towns. 4.5 stars because Shirley Jackson's non-endings tend to leave me unsatisfied, and the plot is skeletal, a boneyard for the characters to dance in, but if you like spooky yet mundane, chilling but non-gory murder mysteries/thrillers, then this is a savory bit of creepiliciousness.