Reading Like a Writer: We Have Always Lived in the Castle and "Untelling"

Posted on Fri, Nov 20 2015 9:00 am by Allison Wyss


Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a creepy little book. It isn't confirmed until very near the end that Merricat, the narrator, has poisoned her family, but we start to feel it right away. Here's the opening:

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 deathcup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

Merricat's murderous tendencies are hinted, not told—the emotionless way she relates her family's death, her wish to be a werewolf, her affinity for a poisonous mushrooms. This is how much of the book works. It's not that Jackson tells nothing about what is frightening—that would be vague and unsatisfying—but that she writes around the edges of what she doesn't reveal.

There's more to be said about the opening passage, but I'd rather look at a slightly different tactic, employed later in the book. Or perhaps it's a different take on the same technique. Sometimes Jackson creates a compelling and eerie mystery not by revealing what is true, but by showing what is not true.

It's the method through which we learn about Merricat's magic. Merricat has a complicated system of superstitions involving magic words and rules—a system that she never fully explains. There's a mystery to it and a darkness. We suspect it is tied to what she is "allowed" to do. We also suspect it is tied to violence and has something to do with the murder of her family.

If this were a typical book, we might expect to have our suspicions slowly confirmed. Instead, they are gradually unlearned. Jackson doesn't reveal, bit by bit, the way the rules work. She makes us suppose things and then strips away our certainty about them.

Merricat tells what she is "allowed" and "not allowed" as the circumstances arise and without explanation. “I was allowed to carry cups and saucers and pass sandwiches and cakes, but not to pour tea.” “I was not allowed to handle knives." Because she is always intent upon pleasing her sister Constance, it seems her rules have been set by Constance. Or perhaps, we think, she has invented them herself, but with Constance's gratification in mind.

Jackson fosters these assumptions through the way the sisters relate to each other. She lets us get comfortable with the idea before she rips it from us.

But eventually the sisters have a disagreement in which Constance wants Merricat to be “allowed” something she is not. Constance says, “But you are allowed. I tell you that you are allowed.” Merricat says, “No.”

It's a startling revelation. The relative safety we've felt with Constance, who is strange yet almost stable, is gone.

With Constance eliminated, it must be Merricat making the rules, right? We're not told so, but made to feel that, logically, it must be her. We don't trust her—of course not!—but we settle in to the knowledge that she's the one to watch. We get comfortable there.

Again, we're unsettled when Merricat says, "I discovered that I was no longer allowed to go to the creek.” So she’s not deciding what she can and can’t do, but finding out about it. Who is making these rules? What is making these rules? The implications are terrifying.

It's a method of revelation that doesn't reveal too much and yet eventually tells quite enough. Jackson doesn't spoil the mystery, but makes it more specific by eliminating options and chipping away at the unknown. Through this method, she leaves the reader with only the very strangest and scariest of possibilities.

Here's another example:

I found a nest of baby snakes near the creek and killed them all; I dislike snakes and Constance had never asked me not to.

It's easy to see how an instance of not telling is also a way of telling. Merricat certainly sees it a such, deliberately misconstruing a double negative as an imperative.

But I'm more interested in what the reader gathers from it. We don't learn precisely what Constance has said to Merricat, but the shape of it is revealed. If it's noteworthy that Constance hasn't said this thing, it suggests that she's said another. And so we start to wonder: What other thing has Constance asked Merricat not to kill? Or, who has Constance asked Merricat not to kill? Does Merricat believe she may kill whatever has not been strictly forbidden? And why would Constance ever have to tell Merricat not to kill something?

So the words Constance has not said make us think of some very specific and quite chilling words that she probably did say. We suddenly suspect quite a lot about Merricat and Constance.

Jackson is a master of the creepy. One way she achieves it is through careful guidance of the reader's imagination. By saying what is not true, she creates a dark outline, a carefully controlled shape. And she guides the reader to fill that space with terrifying thoughts.

Which books have you read that were made scarier by what the writer didn't tell you? Have suggestions for future book reviews? Join the bookish conversation on Twitter with hashtag #ReadingLikeAWriter.


Allison Wyss is teaching "Connecting with Your Characters: The Art of Intimacy in Fiction" this winter at the Loft. Her stories have appeared in [PANK] MagazineThe Southeast ReviewThe Golden KeyMetazenMadHat (Mad Hatters' Review)The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, and Juked. She has an MFA from the University of Maryland. She tweets, mostly about writing, as @AllisonWyss.