Melody Gloucester Pegasus

the book: We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson

published 1962

From regular guest blogger Colm Redmond

“I shall commence, I think, with a slight exaggeration and go on from there into an outright lie. Constance, my dear?”

“Yes, Uncle Julian?”

“I am going to say that my wife was beautiful.”

Constance washed the red and white tablecloth and the shirts of Uncle Julian’s which she wore, and while they were hanging in the garden to dry I wore a tablecloth with a yellow border, which looked very handsome with my gold belt. Our mother’s old brown shoes were safely put away in my corner of the kitchen, since in the warm summer days I went barefoot like Jonas.

observations: This is a novel of mysteries and secrets, about a strange family living on the outskirts of a small town. It starts with Merricat – Mary Katherine, eighteen, the younger sister and narrator – describing her weekly shopping expedition, usually the only direct contact the family has with the townsfolk. Her relatives never leave their big old house. So you’d normally assume that she must be the normal one…

Her only friend, Jonas, does indeed go barefoot – because
he is a cat. She uses three magic words as a protective spell, and we hear her thought process as she chooses a new set – Melody, Gloucester, Pegasus. As far as we can tell, the theory is that if she avoids thinking or saying these words the family are safe. But we get hints from the word go that there may be more danger from within the family than from outsiders.

Their sinister history unfolds slowly, but grippingly. Jackson – whose best known novel is The Haunting Of Hill House, twice filmed as The Haunting – knows pace and suspense, and she beautifully treads that fine line between tantalising and merely frustrating the reader. She could have relied upon a courtroom drama (almost infallibly engrossing, after all) to tell the back-story, but she’s way too subtle for that – as anyone who’s seen the 1963 film The Haunting, with its invisible terrors, will know. There’s also a lot of sly humour, some of it black but much of it just mischievous, like the first extract above.

The top picture shows a 1968 advert, from Pins And Needles magazine, for an Elizabeth Barry Boutique dress pattern. The dress can be made from the tablecloth in the inset pic.

When Merricat’s best red and white “dress” wasn’t in the wash, perhaps she was aiming for the look Brigitte Bardot sported in 1959, as shown in the other advert. BB wore that dress in 1959 for the second of her four weddings, so it’s surprising there are no better pictures of it than this one, above right

For more from the guest blogger, click on his name below.


  1. Moira - Thanks for hosting Colm.

    Colm - Shirley Jackson was so very talented at creating strong suspense. So good at slowly building up an atmosphere! I'm glad you've featured one of her stories. And you know, I'll admit that I never knew what a tablecloth dress is until I read this post. Thanks.

    1. Thanks, Margot. Yes tablecloth dresses are a real thing, there are masses of instructions on the internet. But as you no doubt realise, the bonkers child-woman in the story simply wears a tablecloth with a belt and has never been happier. She's an interesting variant on the unreliable narrator - she never lies, I don't think. But you often gather the truth from her unconscious revelations, not her words. The way other people reply to her or react can go right over her head but speak volumes to the reader.

  2. Second post I have seen recently where Shirley Jackson has been hat-tipped. I tried her years ago but couldn't get into her. Perhaps I didn't try hard enough.

    1. I've only read this one, but it made me want to read many more. That said, I actually read it first about 25 years ago and have read no more Shirley Jackson in the meantime. In 1989 I noted down that very passage that I used as the first part of the extract above. So you see, planning for CiB started a long time ago, when there was no such thing as a blog to play it out on.

  3. And then there is the short story, 'The Lottery.' A chill runs up my spine just thinking of it. A terrific last line.

  4. I am not sure about this book. It sounds like it is maybe too tense to fit my comfort level. I have not read any of Shirley Jackson books or stories. OK probably The Lottery for school. More my husband's speed.

  5. Christine and Tracy, you're both making me feel embarrassed as I knew all along there was a big gap in my Shirley Jackson knowledge. I think I've read The Lottery, once and long ago, but I remember nothing about it. Going to have to catch up on it.


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