The two characters at the heart of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, sisters Mary Katharine and Constance Blackwood, live alone with their doddering Uncle Julian in the aftermath of the deaths of the rest of their family. It’s a limited existence but for the fact that the outside world can’t let them alone. Though the older sister Constance was acquitted at trial, the town is convinced she killed her relatives and that, along with lingering class resentment for the wealthy Blackwoods, leads them to treat the sisters with contempt. Whenever Mary Katharine goes to the market she is taunted with a cruel nursery rhyme accusing her sister.
Mary Katharine, who narrates, is contented enough until the day an estranged cousin comes to pay a visit and stays longer than she’d like. Charles Blackwood is piggish and rude, smoking his pipe wherever he pleases and making free use of his dead uncle’s fine possessions. Mary Katharine, a practitioner of black magic, believes him to be some kind of demon and sets to work on various spells intended to drive him from the house. To her frustration, Charles seems impervious, though his anger at her grows with each one.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle relies on atmosphere for its horror and Jackson is a master at creating a mood. From the very first sentences it is clear that something is very off with the Blackwood sisters. Likewise, Jackson is great at investigating the horror lingering within the everyday. Those normal people with their taunts and their nursery rhymes are full of horrors themselves, as Jackson amply demonstrates in a blazing climax.