Madness Lies in the Woods

by Charlotte Reads Classics

What a writer. This is the second novel by Shirley Jackson that I have read and both have left me completely chilled. Read this or The Haunting of Hill House if you can get your hands on a copy. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is about two sisters (Merricat and Constance) living alone in their family home. The remaining family members are all dead, in circumstances unexplained. The house lies on the outskirts of a particularly unwelcoming village, bordered by woods. In this dominion the sisters carve out a ritualistic version of family life.

There is a hint of madness throughout the whole book which Jackson never fully explains, of course making the book all the more terrifying. Merricat tells the story with a sinister, matter of fact tone. She frequently mentions that she feels a change coming – in itself not a threat, but in context of the rest if the story it left me dreading what would come next. A lot of the story revolves around the ritualised way the sisters spend their time, described as though they were play acting: Constance was an all-round wife-mother-creator figure, whereas Merricat was a perpetual child-hunter-gatherer-protector. To give you an insight, something that stuck with me was the way Merricat makes a protective ‘charm’ around the house by nailing the treasured possessions of her deceased relatives onto the trees circling it.

I was talking to my Dad about this book and he offered an interesting insight. It was that woods in English and American stories serve a different purpose. In England we like trees; the countryside equals the good life, and woods are synonymous with life and vitality. In American stories woods are often something dark and disturbing, that often hold some ‘otherness’ that threatens everyday life. This is definitely one of those stories.

I can’t say that either of the two Shirley Jackson’s novels I have read would ever be one of my favourite books because they are so disturbing. But I would say she was one of my favourite writers, because she controls the reader like no other author. Enthralling, mysterious, fatal.