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We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson

Unless you’re a practicing astrologist, you probably didn’t know that March 21 marks the arrival of two very significant dates in the zodiac: the beginning of the zodiac new year and the beginning of the Aries zodiac. Something to know about Aries people: they’re hardworking and very busy and difficult to keep up with. This will become relevant once you meet Jackson’s murderous protagonist. She’s very, very difficult to keep up with. So Happy New Year and Happy First Day of the Ram. May your exposure to dark magic and demonic ritual in this novella set in April, in celebration of this Aries zodiac, not wholly impact your sanity/happiness.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle ain’t your typical pagan how-to manual. Its protagonist/demon queen/belle de magique/poison connoisseur, Merricat (nickname but bizarre nonetheless since she is neither merry nor a cat owner), lives in a classically ancient/decrepit mansion with her angel-like older sister Constance and bizarre Uncle Julian who, inexplicably, is obsessively working on a personal memoir. Oh, and the rest of their family all died of arsenic-laced sugar six years prior at dinner time at the hand of one of the creepy surviving family members.

So needless to say, the villagers all hate them and they’re social pariahs who basically never leave the house except to troll everyone by continuing to buy sugar from the grocery store. It would be hilarious it it weren’t so fucked up. Or, quite possibly, it’s hilarious because of, and not in spite of, the fucked up-ness.

So there the family is, living their weird little lives, practicing black magic and stapling books to trees and piercing voodoo dolls and capturing spiders in family heirlooms, when one day estranged gold-digging cousin Charles rolls into town trying to incestuously woo Constance and get to her inheritance. Plot twists and disturbing family interactions abound, courtesy of the woman who brought you The Lottery and The Haunting of Hill House and other fiction that makes you choke on the bile of your perplexed and abject terror.

Semantically, the book is an eerily dreamy lullaby that you’re wary of and then double back to in search of an underlying meaning. “Silly Merricat,” says Contance to her sister, “stop dreaming over your toast.” It’s strange dialogue, and Jackson is fond of this oddly breathy, formal tone between her characters. The subsequent effect is unsettling, and it will make your skin crawl–she doesn’t need a traditional exposition or thematic buildup to invoke a sense of impending doom, because her language does it all for her. It’s brilliant.

Jackson doeS, however, impart upon us some extremely valuable pearls of wisdom, like:

  • Never eat sugar-coated blackberries
  • Don’t do nothing to upset your neighbors
  • It’s advisable to not cover up the murder of your entire family by protecting a guilty person
  • Family you haven’t seen in years who arbitrarily show up just want your money
  • Keep a secret lair in the trunk of an old oak tree
  • Burying marbles will make your land infertile