I once told someone that Shirley Jackson was my favorite horror writer because her monsters are far too familiar, and as much as it has become a cliché that the monster was humanity all along those are themes Jackson dives into on the regular. Her final novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle is no different.
The novel is told from the perspective of Mary Katherine Blackwood or Merricat as she is known to her sister and in the taunting nursery rhyme the villagers sing about her and the Blackwood tragedy of six years prior. At the time of the telling Mary Katherine is 18 years old but has the mentality more akin to the 12 year old she was at the time of the tragedy. If we were to talk about Mary Katherine in today’s language me might even call her neuro-divergent. Mary Katherine has issues talking with people, she doesn’t understand the consequences of her actions, she lives in a fantasy world of her own creation, she is highly intelligent and has memorized all sorts of poisonous plants, and when she gets frustrated she feels that is the time to break the sugar bowl or the hall mirror. The reader could write all that off as the results of a child suffering a traumatic event and spending the last six years in isolation but Mary Katherine is no victim.
Think of this story. An accused murderess is acquitted of the crime of poisoning her entire family. There are three survivors, Uncle Julian who is now crippled due to his ingestion of arsenic, Mary Katherine who was sent to bed without dinner, and Constance who did not eat any of the poisoned sugar and is our accused murderess. The number of the dead is unknown to us but we do know that Mary Katherine’s father, mother, and brother were among the poisoned as well as Julian’s wife. it is hinted that there were even more family members and perhaps some guests present at the dinner, but that is not reveled. Mary Katherine is sent to live in an orphanage while her sister is put on trial because a third Blackwood brother refuses to have anything to do with the family. After the trial is over and Constance is acquitted Mary Katherine and Julian go to live with her at the Blackwood estate.
When we think of that story and we think of Mary Katherine’s place in it wouldn’t we assume her a victim? Wouldn’t we view her with some regards of sympathy? But that isn’t what happens. When Mary Katherine goes into the village to get library books and groceries she is ridiculed, bullied, and shunned. It is hinted at that this is an old feud. Mary Katherine’s father put up gates to keep the villagers out, the Blackwood family lost the rights to their mother’s ancestral home, and Mary Katherine tells us how her father viewed the villagers as beneath them.
Even if the patriarch of the Blackwood family was a terrible person who used his money and power to do harm to the villagers should his teenage daughter truly be a subject of such hatred? Mary Katherine’s father casts a large shadow over We Have Always Lived in the Castle. He is the reason for everything that happens in the story. From Mary Katherine’s decision to poison her family to cousin Charles Blackwood showing up in search of the family fortune. The father casts a long shadow.
We shouldn’t dwell too much on why the villagers hate Mary Katherine. As Shirley Jackson showed us in her most famous story, The Lottery, hate is easy. Sometimes we hate for no reason other than a name was pulled from a box and it is tradition we hate the person attached to the name pulled from the box, and once we hate. Once we head down that path it is then that we create the narrative as to why we hate.
In We Have Always Lived in the Castle the monster is not the girl who murdered the majority of her family and would murder every person in the village if she could nor are the villagers that hate for no other reason than they need something or someone to hate. The monster, like in other Shirley Jackson works, is not us nor is it hate itself it is the reason behind the hate and the momentum that reasoning can cause.
Here is another story. A 12 year old girl witnesses her sister, 10 years older than her, blossom into womanhood and become the obsession of their father. Their father sexually assaults and abuses the older sister. The family is either complacent through silence or mocks the 22 year old unwed women for being a 22 year old unwed women. Eventually the 12 year old does what is in her power to do and puts arsenic in the sugar bowl knowing her older sister doesn’t take sugar. Most of the family dies except Uncle Julian who it is alluded to is also a victim of his brother.
That is a much different story than the one the villagers think they know and there are other stories we can tell as well. The events that led up to the poisoning of Mary Katherine’s family are unknown and she may have done it simply because she was sent to bed without supper and if she was going to be punished then so was everyone else. The shadow of our ignorance loams as large as the shadow of Mary Katherine’s father when it comes to We Have Always Lived in the Castle. What is important isn’t the story we tell ourselves but what we do with it, because by the end of the novel there are a lot of stories the villagers tell themselves about Constance and Mary Katherine. Most of them are stories of regret and asking for forgiveness for how they acted on the night Blackwood manner burned down, but others are of curses and the two old witches who won’t leave the ruins of their families home.