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Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

One day I will stop going on about how un-thrilling I find most thrillers, and likewise how un-mysterious I find most mysteries.

The problem I have with thrillers is that so many of them are based on the premise that the perpetrator of the misdeeds is an unhinged psychopath, which takes away the interest of a proper motive that you always used to get with a good old fashioned Agatha Christie.  The other problem I have with them is the inexplicably stupid things that many of the protagonists (many of them women) do that get them into trouble, eg Yvonne Carmichael in Apple Tree Yard, or any of the three interchangeable women narrators in The Girl on The Train, which was Radio 4’s most recent Book at Bedtime.  All the women had quite different sounding voices, but they all spoke with the same tone of wistful uselessness that had me really confused as to what was going on, and everything revolved around their relationships with two quite horrible sounding men.

What everyone needs to do is read some Shirley Jackson 🙂

We Have Always Lived In The Castle is about two sisters, Constance and Mary Katherine Blackwood, who live in a large house just outside a village.  The novel opens with Mary Katherine (Merricat) on a shopping trip in the village; the sense of enmity and foreboding is terrific.  Then there is an extended sequence of the sisters in their own territory, which is fairly batty, but the pattern of normality is still recognisable, just more or less twisted in different places.  On one level, you feel the sense of comfort the sisters have built up around themselves, but on another, you wonder just what the twists hide.  Everything is character driven, nothing is random.

I don’t tend to creep out that easily from classic books (found both The Woman in Black and The Turn of the Screw fairly ho-hum) but Shirley Jackson really knew how to do tension.

Here is a link to her most famous, and controversial, short story The Lottery.



  1. I found myself oddly uplifted by reading The Lottery (on the way in to work in a taxi, trying to not succumb to motion-induced nausea). Unfortunately, the final lines remind me of a scene from the Life of Brian – rather more levity than intended…

    • I’m thankful that The Lottery isn’t on our particular curriculum. I found it tedious – too much dialogue. And as for suspense, I know I’m a cynic but I’d virtually guessed the outcome after the first couple of paragraphs.

      • I guess it’s similar to the Castle book – it’s more about the creepy heaviness in the atmosphere than about surprise.
        I would never call you cynical 😉

    • I will see it in a different light now! Once in an A level English class we read a Thomas Hardy poem about this putrid little bird and all I could think of to say when asked was that I found it funny. We had one of those teachers who tries really hard never to say that someone was wrong but I think the poem was about mortality or something like that.

  2. Thanks for this post, Denise. I admit I’ve never read any SJ other than The Lottery way back when, and, it sure read like a suspense thriller. Now I know where to turn if I want to find a good thriller/mystery. Have you read any of our modern day offerings in this genre? I mean books like Gone Girl, Girl on the Train, Before I Go to Sleep…. etc. etc.? None of them are gratifying I’ve found.

    • I didn’t mind Gone Girl, at least there was some character involved, and it was more in the twisted normality vein. I tried Before I Go to Sleep but it was terribly boring. I found it similar the Elizabeth book about the woman with dementia – there was something about the reality that was presented being simultaneously not convincing to me, and inherently tedious.

  3. Have you tried Adrian McKinty? He evokes atmosphere so well, never mind his exciting narrative. I started with the Sean Duffy series and am now reading everything he’s written. He’s more than a thriller writer. I find him exciting, literary and unputdownable.
    Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels make me think I’m in Edinburgh and I’ve enjoyed them all, ditto John Harvey in Nottingham. Elly Griffith in East Anglia, Peter May in the Hebrides and in China (and Canada)! Fabulous way to travel, experience other milieu, life styles and times.
    I only began reading in this genre recently and can’t credit what I’ve missed.

  4. Character based, physcological thrillers are my favourite genre, so thank you Denise for this recommendation. I will definitely be reading this!

  5. It’s funny, but whilst reading We Have Always Lived In The Castle, I thought ‘this isn’t a thriller. Nor a horror story. This is a character-driven dark comedy.’ I guessed early on who really was the killer so it never felt like a mystery/thriller to me. If anything, the story felt really domestic. The only thing Merricat wants is to keep the status quo of her home intact — no serial killer urges here.

    • It felt really odd that the who out of the whodunnit was flagged up so quickly. Usually I hate that, but it seemed deliberate here, and so that got me wondering whether it was a double bluff, and also I found it fascinating that the author was so bold about suggesting what actually happens. but you are right, it is a good read as dark comedy too!

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