A story told from the point of view of an unreliable narrator, with events seen through the veil of an apparently dissociated mind, makes for an interesting narrative, where we wonder how much we can trust what the narrator is telling us. Turns out, we can trust her more than we imagined, as long as we are paying attention.
Mary Katherine Blackwood, or Merricat, lives in a large house with her sister Constance and her uncle Julian. She says at the start of the story:
My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.
It is easy to gloss over this statement, but it does immediately tell us some important facts: Merricat wants to be a creature of violence and power, she is probably at least mildly autistic (the dislike of washing and noise, as well as her liking only her sister), she indicates OCD tendencies with her rituals and totems, and her other ‘likes’ indicate sociopathic tendencies (Richard Plantagenet, thought to have murdered family, and a poisonous mushroom.)
“I can’t help it when people are frightened,” says Merricat. “I always want to frighten them more.”
We can’t judge Merricat in isolation – she has to be viewed in the context of her family. Her elder sister Constance is agoraphobic – she cannot bear the idea of moving further than the garden outside the house. We learn she was charged with the mass poisoning of the rest of their family by arsenic, an incident of which Uncle Julian was the only survivor. She was acquitted, but is generally assumed to be a murderer by the people of the town.
Uncle Julian is in a wheelchair and needs Constance’s care. She won’t let Merricat help her with this – Merricat tells the reader that she is ‘not allowed’ to do various things, including help with the cooking or with Uncle Julian’s care. Uncle Julian suffers from some form of dementia. He is obsessed with writing about the death of the family. His ill health is apparently a side-effect of the poisoning, and possibly his dementia is too.
The reader needs to pay attention to this book. Merricat may be an unreliable narrator, her sister and uncle not much better, but we can pick out from the statements of the various characters enough to give us a picture of the situation. We understand that the family was not very mentally healthy as well – Merricat’s father fought with and alienated others. Merricat’s mother demanded the fence be put up as she didn’t want the people of the town taking shortcuts through their land – she felt the family to be better than them. We realise that Merricat was probably not treated very well, her family not understanding her autism or other mental issues.
The family lives in a kind of bubble, frozen in time. Merricat talks about the things they do and the days they do them on. Everything is done in a particular way and nothing is to be changed. Consequently, even though she tells us she is eighteen, she sounds younger. It is like she has not had the opportunity to grow beyond the twelve year old she was at the time of the deaths. Constance, too, has not changed during this period, and Uncle Julian is obsessed with the day the family died, unable to drag his mind away from it. They are stuck.
When the cousin Charles comes to visit, this is what makes changes to the girls’ static bubble of existence. Merricat doesn’t like him immediately. This is not surprising as she doesn’t like anyone. It would be tempting to say her dislike is no more than her usual reaction, except that Charles’ words immediately make him suspicious to the reader. This is not a nice man, and it is soon very clear that he is looking for the Blackwood money, intending to woo Constance and get rid of Merricat and Uncle Julian. Constance is too innocent to realise what he is up to, and Merricat’s paranoia means Constance will not necessarily be inclined to believe her.
The actions of the townspeople when the house catches fire is appalling. They become a mob, trashing the house and trying to attack the girls, who have to run into the woods to hide. It is interesting that in the cold light of day most of them discover some shame about their actions, and try to absolve themselves by leaving the girls food. The townspeople don’t really know why the girls are the way they are – they have never liked the family before that. Their small-minded prejudices don’t allow for understanding, or any attempt to understand. Even the visitors seem to come out of some duty to the ‘poor girls’ rather than any care or friendship. No help is really offered. In the end the girls become the residents of the ‘haunted house’ that often turns up in stories, the house that children dare each other to go up to (as happens in the final pages), and their lives are turned into fairy stories about how they will kill and eat children and so on.
“I wonder if I could eat a child if I had the chance.’
‘I doubt if I could cook one,’ said Constance.”
The end impression is that there has been mental illness in the family long before Merricat and Constance. It seems clear that the girls were probably abused, physically and emotionally. In the end it is very hard to blame the (eventually revealed) culprit for the poisoning – you have to wonder if the victims didn’t deserve it in some way. It was quite obvious that there would be no help for the girls outside the family, even if it had occurred to them to ask. I found the story terribly sad, in the end. Merricat and Constance are the victims of prejudice, abuse, and neglect. Is it any wonder that they did their best to look after themselves, as those whose responsibility it might have been did not bother?
“We Have always lived in the castle” has been described as horror, though I’m not sure I would describe it as such. There is certainly nothing supernatural occurring in it. It is in many ways horrific, in the terrible way human beings have of ganging up against the perceived ‘outsiders’. It is not a long novel, and I think it to be excellent, atmospheric and gripping.