by Shirley Jackson
Six years ago, the Blackwood family was wiped out when someone slipped arsenic into their sugar. Only three people survived the tragedy: Uncle Julian, a shadow of his former self after the poison worked through his system; pretty Constance, who declined the sugar, and Merricat, who was sent to her room without supper. The town has long suspected Constance killed her family, because she washed out the bowl after the poisoning, destroying the evidence, and was the only person at the table who didn’t use the tainted sugar. Adding this to the town’s dislike of the haughty Blackwood family, and the three family members are shunned. Only Merricat travels into town to pick up food supplies and library books, while the others remain hidden in their great mansion. But the quiet routine the family has settled into is disrupted when a forgotten cousin comes a-calling, determined to bring the Blackwoods back to their former glory.
The story is narrated by Merricat, a strange young woman obsessed with superstitions and protective magic. Although she’s eighteen, it’s very easy to forget this, as she speaks and acts more like a child half her age. Sometimes I think she has a touch of OCD, because she’s constantly rationalizing, “If I do this, than this can’t happen. If I do this, than this WILL happen.” But maybe that’s paranoia (I’m not so good with mental disorders) instead. Certainly, Merricat is paranoid, and it quickly becomes clear that she’s unreliable. Do the townspeople hate her as much as she claims, or is it all in her head? The reader is left to decide. As the story goes on, Merricat reveals herself to be increasingly troubled and prone to violent outbursts when she doesn’t get her way.
Constance, by contrast, begins the book as the odd one. She’s the quiet, reclusive sister who never goes out, patiently cleaning and cooking and caring for her aged uncle. Yet as the book progresses, and Merricat’s disturbing characteristics emerge, Constance shifts towards normal. By the end of the book, she seems a weary woman trying to protect the world from sociopathic child, not hiding away because she’s scared. In the rare moments that she interacts with the outside world, a glimmer of the delightful young woman she may have become had the family not been beset with tragedy shines, but it’s quickly swallowed up into the dark gloom of the Castle.
Yes, I really did feel sorry for Constance. She’s constantly working to tend the garden or clean the house while her sister Merricat – at eighteen, more than old enough to do proper chores - plays and frolics outdoors. When Charles flirts with her, is it any wonder that she responds? It’s the only time she’s been given any attention for the woman she is, not the murderess of local notoriety or the nursemaid or the playmate.
It’s a chilling psychological tale, told by a young mind twisted by circumstances unknown. Merricat never really talks about her childhood, but it’s clear something terrible must have happened for her to be so warped. Or maybe nothing did – maybe she’s just a broken person who spent too much time reading about poisons and running wild without discipline. Everything about the book is unsettling and creepy. No wonder it’s become such a classic horror novel.
4 out of 5 stars
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Peeking into the archives...today in:
2014: Japan Ai: A Tall Girl's Adventures in Japan by Aimee Major Steinberger
2013: Guest Post: Another Teenage Boy Steals My Heart
2012: Review Status for Books 2012
2011: Closing down for end of year Festivus…
2010: News: Seriously Cool Pop-Up Book
2009: College Girl by Patricia Weitz