4 out of 5 disturbing stars
What a mind trip! Shirley Jackson was so ahead of her time. This is really short but it’s perfect. It’s about the Blackwoods, well, those that are left. It’s just Mary Katherine, called Merricat, and Constance, the young ladies, and disabled Uncle Julian. There used to be seven until one fateful night when arsenic found its way into the sugar bowl.
When the story begins, we go to the town with Merricat. She tells us that Tuesdays and Fridays are the worst days, because those are the days she has to go to town. She has to because Uncle Julian can’t (having survived the arsenic, but only just, his mind isn’t all there and he’s stuck in a wheelchair) and Constance won’t. She tells us that the villagers hate the Blackwoods. Now you think that must be a young girls imagination gone wild. But we come to see how much they hate the Blackwoods.
Right away, there were things I didn’t trust about Merricat. I thought a lot of this was all in her head. Especially when we meet Constance, who we hear so much about, always from the perspective that Merricat has to protect her. Constance was acquitted, after all. I mean if that doesn’t drive a chill up your back. Then we meet her and she’s all sunshine and sweetness. Of course, Merricat’s ways of protecting her sister and the house is weird. She buries marbles. Well, she buries a lot of things. She also nails books to trees. She has magic words. But despite all these protections, Cousin Charles comes, and things are never the same again.
The setting, the mood, is so melancholy. We learn that the house is still in immaculate condition, but entire rooms are never used. The sisters have a rigid schedule to their week. Merricat doesn’t touch the knives. She’s not allowed to touch Julian’s things. They work in the garden. They keep the house spotless. Constance cooks and cleans. And Merricat just gets weirder and weirder. The sense of isolation and impending doom are palpable. First, Constance comes farther from the house than ever to meet Merricat on her way back from town. (Clearly, Constance has some sort of agoraphobia. Both sisters have a terrible fear of being looked at or watched.) Then she mentions maybe getting out or having people over. Merricat can’t even begin to fathom these things. She doesn’t think it will ever happen – it’s not on her radar. And meanwhile, Uncle Julian keeps asking if it really happened. Yes, it did, they assure him. It’s all they can do.
When Charles comes, he upsets nearly everything. Merricat hates him on site, like she hates everyone that isn’t her sister. At first, you think he’s going to be an okay guy. He’s willing to help out, or says he is. What he seems to do is subtly threaten Merricat and leave his disgusting pipe everywhere. He shouts, actually shouts at Uncle Julian and goes around digging up Merricat’s things. And Constance seems to listen to him. Merricat politely asks him to leave. But he doesn’t. He should have gone when he had the chance.
My only complaint is how easily people gave up on trying to approach the family. First of all, this family is two young girls. They treat them like your local boogeyman. I mean the family was hated for other reasons before the arsenic dinner, but to try and drive out two girls and a feeble old man is just so horrible. And at the end, after the inciting incident, their friends didn’t try very hard to intervene on their behalf.
This was an amazing, quick read. I’m sad my copy was so ugly, but hey, it was a .01 buy on Amazon. I really enjoyed this and will probably make it an annual October read.