Merricat Blackwood has lived in seclusion with her sister Constance and uncle Julian since someone poisoned the rest of the Blackwood family six years ago. The family was felled by arsenic in the sugar bowl, and Constance was the natural suspect–she was the family cook, she ate none of the poisoned sugar, and, most suspiciously, she washed out the sugar bowl before police arrived. Julian ate not quite enough arsenic to kill him, although it permanently damaged his health, and Merricat had been sent to bed without supper for some juvenile infraction. Constance was tried for the crime and acquitted. Local opinion, however, has a much lower standard of evidence than the justice system, and the village metes out its own punishment to the wicked Blackwood poisoner. With Julian too ill, and Constance too vilified, to venture out, it falls to Merricat to be the family’s one link to the outside world, much as she’d prefer to hide away, too. The family finds a kind of balance, a way to go on living, but of course, it takes very little to destroy something so delicate. A fortune-hunting cousin turns up one day and sets all the Blackwoods spinning: Julian with confusion, Constance with ardor, and Merricat with an implacable rage. The trail of consequences is as horrifying as it is inevitable.
Where do haunted houses come from? How does a perfectly normal building transition from family home to town haunt? Nobody builds a decrepit, burned-out, vine-covered wreck to live in; no-one is born a recluse wielding the powers of terror and guilt over a town. Something terrible has to happen, to the house and the inhabitants; horror must be visited upon a home to turn it into the kind of place children test their mettle against by daring to ring the doorbell. Legends of child-eating witches who demand regular tributes, lest they prey upon the local kinder, have to start somewhere. We Have Always Lived in the Castle tells the story of how one of these cursed places comes into being.
Hanging over the story is the question of who really murdered the Blackwood family, and why. It almost has to be one of the surviving Blackwoods, but as they’re all several degrees off plumb, it’s hard to say who was mad before the massacre, and who was made mad by its aftermath. The townspeople are convinced it was Constance, but that doesn’t keep them from tormenting Merricat whenever she appears in town to get supplies. But, that’s ever the way with insular groups of people and anyone they perceive as different, and Merricat’s plenty different–which makes her quite an interesting narrator to guide us through her family’s story. I don’t want to give anything more away about this slim novel; it really deserves to be read and enjoyed on its own merits. Merricat is worth meeting in person–and I wouldn’t want her to think I was talking about her behind her back!
Shirley Jackson is definitely the find of this RIP Challenge for me. She’s got an eye for what’s truly terrifying: the horrors close to home. She’s not worried about some undead Romanian prince or Egyptian pharaoh showing up to menace the innocent; she knows it’s much more likely the neighbors will take a liking to your property or a dislike to you, personally, and act accordingly. No supernatural entity can do half the damage of a group of ordinary citizens in one of Jackson’s stifling little towns, mobbed up and howling for blood.
This review is for RIP V.