We Have Always Lived in the Castle is Shirley Jackson’s story of a child named Mary Katherine Blackwood, who, after poisoning her family, lives with her sister Constance in a large house, which she eventually sets on fire. Constance was originally blamed for the murders. She indulges Mary Katherine (Merricat) in all of her misbehavior and outlandish fantasies. The sisters lock themselves away from a world intolerant of murderesses until an insufferable cousin shows up, and that’s what leads to the fire.
Or is this the story? They live with an invalid uncle who flirts with senility, saying at one point, “My niece Mary Katherine has been a long time dead. . . . [She] died in an orphanage, of neglect, during her sister’s trial for murder.” And one may think of other Shirley Jackson characters: Jannie in Life among the Savages, the child who adopts a bewildering variety of names and moves among them comfortably, shifting the blame for her mischief to whichever one she is not currently inhabiting; the conceivably schizophrenic Natalie in Hangsaman; Elizabeth in The Bird’s Nest, as she wrestles with her multiple personalities.
So it’s possible that this isn’t the story of two young women living in an old house but of one young woman living in an old house. She was originally blamed for the murders because she committed them. She handles the pain of that by splitting off the uncontrollable, stream-battling, world-ruining part of herself and naming it after the little sister she killed.
Is cousin Charles a fantasy too then, the embodiment of an intruding past and an intruding world? Or is he real—his rough treatment of “Mary Katherine” a rough treatment of Constance simply transposed onto the imaginary sister and managed that way? The scene in which the strangers from the village come to see the fire and end up participating in it orgiastically suggests a certain flair for persecution fantasy, so Charles should be a finger exercise for her. But all too real in his petty acquisitiveness, Charles could just as well be the mote of reality that gets in the mind’s eye of the imaginative girl and triggers a conflagration.
Of course, none of this is the actual story. The actual story is that of a house, the huge, ramshackle house that everyone knows from childhood with the haunted-house legends attached to it. By the end of the book, though Mary Katherine and Constance seem not to have aged, the vines have grown up so that evidence of the fire is erased. There was no fire. There were no murders and no sisters. There is just a scary house that needs explaining. This isn’t on the surface a ghost story, but all stories are ghost stories in a way, all fictional characters ghosts of a kind. That’s the sense in which they have always lived in that castle, out of time or in the parallel stream of story.
How many of them are there in the castle,
That scattered family or just a girl
Living there with her personalities?
Or do such odd inhabitants exist
More in the minds of us, the villagers,
Who need these bogeymen, these bogey-girls
To fill the haunted houses of our towns?
Remember “Mary Katherine has been
A long time dead,” words dropped by one who flits
Around the edges of his own decline.
This tense—what does it mean to have been dead
Unless now dead no more; that is, a ghost?
Ghost in the way that every story is.
Jack Granath is a librarian in Kansas.