The Subtle Horror of “We Have Always Lived in the Castle”

We Have Always Lived in the Castle isn’t really a horror story. The book takes place five years after the murder of most of the prestigious Blackwood family. Very little gore occurs in the book itself. There is only one (semi-accidental) death and a small arson spree—pretty weak numbers for something written by Shirley Jackson. So what makes this book so compelling?

In large part we have to thank the eccentric, and eventually murderous, presence of Merricat Blackwood.

At first glimpse, the novel’s eighteen year old narrator seems almost sympathetic. The villagers gossip about the poisoning of her family and accuse her beloved sister, Constance, of the crime. Though Constance was acquitted, the villagers still consider her a murderess and taunt Merricat as she walks through town. While the townspeople are certainly unkind, Merricat’s paranoia elevates the trip to a nausea-inducing level of anxiety. She imagines dangers where there are none, convincing herself that if she crosses the street a villager will purposely run her over. She is certainly agonized, but at this point still seems a victim. 

 That is, until she imagines herself walking home over her tormentors’ dead bodies. Then we get a glimpse of what’s to come. 

 Our first impression of Merricat is of a nervous wreck. She perceives everything as a threat and enacts intricate rituals to keep herself and her home safe. Blackwood Manor, the titular castle, is the only place she feels entirely safe. Inside those walls, in the company of Constance and their senile Uncle Julian, nothing can possibly touch her. 

Blackwood Manor is the only place she feels entirely safe.

Or at least, not until the arrival of Charles Blackwood. Charles, the girls’ cousin, wastes no time making himself disagreeable. He invites himself into the castle, sets up camp in the master bedroom, and is constantly asking about money. Though Merricat sees instantly that he is a gold digger, Constance is entranced. She hasn’t left the grounds of the house since her acquittal, and she clings to Charles’s stories of the outside. Deeply jealous and threatened, Merricat exacts revenge. She sets the house on fire, driving away Charles and causing the death of Uncle Julian.

 It’s around this time that Merricat admits to Constance that it was she who poisoned the family’s sugar bowl. She choose the sugar bowl in order to spare Constance, who never eats sugar. The signs were certainly there, and even guileless Constance seems to have known all along. 

In Merricat’s mind, the murder was heroic. She saw her family as evil and oppressive, for reasons never made quite clear. We have hints that they were somewhat controlling, a little arrogant and greedy, but nothing meriting death. Really, it is for entirely selfish reasons that she kills her family. She is like a little girl playing dollhouse, getting rid of the people she doesn’t like and saving the ones she does. Charles threatens to break up her happy home, so she must get rid of him at any cost. 

 It’s easier to understand Merricat’s motivations with Charles, at least. He is obsessed with money almost to the point of caricature. He has no real interest in Constance, wooing her only to gain access to the manor. Once safely inside, he treats Constance like a commodity, expecting her to cook and clean for him. It’s notable that he is repeatedly described as bearing a striking resemblance to the late Mr. Blackwood. He is both literally and symbolically taking the girls’ father’s place, and considering what Merricat did to him, Charles got off easy. 

[Charles] is both literally and symbolically taking the girls’ father’s place.

 Merricat frames killing her family and driving away Charles as protecting Constance from their control. But she is only saving Constance so that she can control her herself.

We have no sign that Constance really wants the life Merricat does. She repeatedly shows interest in going outside or down to the village and Merricat repeatedly discourages her or sabotages her opportunities. By not allowing Constance any choice in her own life, Merricat is effectively acting towards her as Charles or her father would. She too sees Constance as more of a commodity than a person, demanding cooking from her distraught sister almost immediately after the fire.

 If Merricat truly wanted to free Constance, she would have admitted to the murders on the spot. Constance would have never been arrested and would have been able to live a normal life. Instead, Constance is sensationalized and gossiped over. Merricat’s worst nightmare is Constance’s reality, and isolating herself in the castle is the only way Constance can escape. So Merricat doesn’t truly want to protect Constance, she just wants to protect the bubble.

Merricat’s worst nightmare is Constance’s reality.

 As Blackwood Manor burns, the villagers gather around it. Instead of aiding the firefighters, they throw stones through the windows and scream taunts at the girls. When the sisters try to escape, the mob surrounds them and begin to attack Constance who they still perceive as an escaped murderess. Merricat’s paranoid fears are at last realized.

The crowd disperses when the fire chief announces that Julian Blackwood has been found dead in the house, but by then it’s too late. This is the death knell for Constance’s hope of ever escaping Blackwood Manor. For the rest of their lives Merricat can point to this night and say “Why would you want to go outside and see the people who did that to you?”. As long as Merricat has fear to use as a weapon, Constance will never leave.

On the very first page of the book, we are told that the Blackwoods have always lived in the castle. And by the end we see that, if Merricat has anything to say about it, they always will.