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Book Review: Cows on Ice and Owls in the Bog

Book Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle

I’ve been hearing about this book for decades. I think the first reference I came across was when I was reading the book club (remember those?) edition of Stephen King’s Danse Macabre. I’ve encountered other references to Shirley Jackson’s work, too — sometimes in discussions about The Twilight Zone — but I’ve never taken the time to seek her novels.

And I still haven’t. I only read this one because it was left at my feet. That is, last October, someone put it in our Little Free Library. It was adorned with an enticing Post-It Note:

jackson book cover

I took this as a sign from a god and added the donated book to the pile of unread books that threatens to overtake my office. A couple of weeks ago, I opened to the first page, and by the end of the second sentence I was hooked:

”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 of my hands are about the same length, but I have to be content with what I had.”

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is one of the most eerie, compelling, and beautifully written stories I have read. I wish I had done so sooner. As soon as I finished it (no spoilers, but the ending is perfect) I immediately wanted to read it all over again so I could study and admire its construction.

If you read the more studious reviews of the book—of which there are many in the 59 years since its publication—you’ll find heaps of praise and appreciation, but generally very little detail about the story itself. (Still, don’t read them, spoilers suck.) The reason for all their editorial vagueness, including my own, is that trying to convey the atmosphere and feeling that Jackson has created is like describing smoke. You have to experience it for yourself.

Here are some excerpts that stood out for me:

  • “I decided that I would choose three powerful words, words of strong protection, and so long as these great words were never spoken aloud no change would come. I wrote the first word — melody — in the apricot jam on my toast with the handle of a spoon and then put the toast in my mouth and ate it very quickly. I was one-third safe.”
  • “I thought of using digitalis as my third magic word, but it was too easy for someone to say, and at last I decided on Pegasus. I took a glass from the cabinet, and said the word very distinctly into the glass, then filed it with water and drank.”
  • “Since Charles had my occupation for Tuesday morning I had nothing to do. I wondered about going down to the creek, but I had no reason to suppose that the creek would even be there, since I never visited it on Tuesday mornings; …”

If you’re not lucky enough to receive a copy by divine intervention, you can, of course, buy one at Amazon.


Craig Conley

I love your zinger, "If you’re not lucky enough to receive a copy by divine intervention..." In one of my upcoming videos, I review a book without ever mentioning its title, noting how the best books have a knack for finding you on their own. :-)

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