EDITOR'S BOOKSHELF: "We Have Always Lived in the Castle" by Shirley Jackson

By Read Trammel, CutBank Fiction Editor

One of the things I’ve appreciated most about being in an MFA program is the opportunity to be exposed to new books and authors. Not only does this happen through literature classes, but it also occurs through conversations with my peers. I’m currently compiling a long list of these “MFA Recommendations,” which I hope to get to one of these days. As a professor recently said, “There will always be more books to read,” and being in a program with a bunch of other people who love to read is a good way to find out about some of them.

This semester, I’ve been taking an independent study on novellas in which we are trying to write our own novella while reading published novellas and short novels. Members of the independent study picked six books to read and while I have enjoyed all of them, I think the one that will stick with me the longest is We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. I think as readers we all have our blind spots and for me that includes spooky stories in the gothic vein. It’s not that I don’t enjoy them; they just don't typically pop up on my radar. While I had been captivated and disturbed by "The Lottery" as an eighth grader, I had not read any of Shirley Jackson’s other work until now.

From the first paragraph--in which the narrator, Mary Katherine Blackwood, reveals that her affinities include the death cap mushroom and that all of her family, save a sister and uncle, are dead--we are pulled along into a dark world full of suspicion. Mary Katherine and her sister Constance live with their dying Uncle Julian at Blackwood House, a sprawling manor outside of a village where everyone seems to hate them. Their isolation from the village, as well as the village’s mistrust of them due to their family being poisoned years before, is at the heart of the conflict in the novel.

Mary Katherine, nicknamed Merricat, is one of the most fascinating first person narrators I have encountered. Her voice is at once as innocent as a child and as unhinged as a psychopath. She has developed a strange, superstitious system of magic that includes burying money and nailing books to trees, which she hopes will keep out strangers. She pictures these same strangers as bodies she will walk over, reveling in their violent demise. Merricat is not entirely unsympathetic and therein lies Jackson’s skill as a writer. Even while you are made uneasy by reading her narration, you come to root for her to succeed against this village full of simmering rage.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a complex novel, especially impressive due to its short length. It is an exploration of a disturbed character and a study of group dynamics. Reading it, I was reminded that it is good to read outside of our comfort zones. There is too much great writing out there that can be missed.

About the Author: 
Read Trammel is a fiction writer in the MFA Program at the University of Montana. He was born in Colorado and attended college there, but he enjoys traveling and seeing new places. Read is a lifelong fly fisherman and is known to occasionally put down his writing implements for his fly rod. Since both fishing and writing are key activities at UM and in Missoula, he loves calling Missoula home. Read’s writing has appeared in Yale Anglers Journal, Solstice Literary Magazine, and Foothills Literary Journal.