Before reading this book by Shirley Jackson, the only other thing I had read of hers was her famous short story, The Lottery. Like most people, I first encountered this story as part of an anthology in an introductory literature class. I was blown away by the story, but for whatever reason, I never sought out any of her other work. To remedy the situation, I recently picked up We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House. They're both relatively short books and by most standards would be considered novellas.
I absolutely love the cover on my Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition. It's a black and white drawing with the two main characters surrounded by the people from the village. The book is deliciously creepy. I really don't know any other way to say it. I knew from the very first lines of the book that I would like it. Here, see what you think.
"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 death cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead."
Isn't that great? Of course, I wanted to know right away what happened to her family. But, Jackson does a great job of slowly revealing just enough to keep the reader interested and turning pages. Mary Katherine or 'Merricat' and her older sister Constance lead a relatively hermetic life in their family home. The only other person there is old Uncle Julian who is wheelchair bound and showing signs of increasing dementia. Merricat is the unfortunate member of the family who must walk to the village weekly and buy the necessary supplies from the grocery store. She also stops by the public library with each visit into town. These visits are extremely uncomfortable for her. She is well aware of how the people in the village view her and her sister. The villagers remind me of the villagers in The Lottery during the stoning scene. However, here they are usually hurling words. It's almost painful to read the lengths that Merricat goes to to deal with her weekly outings. She talks to herself and plays little games to try and take her mind off of the people she encounters.
Constance is usually cheerful and takes good care of Merricat. She is patient and they live pretty normally, except for the fact that they don't go anywhere and don't have visitors. They keep the doors locked at all times and are very skeptical of strangers. It quickly becomes obvious that the rest of their family died of poisoning. This is something that they talk about with each other on a fairly regular basis just as you would talk about the weather or some other insignificant fact. Constance, Merricat and Uncle Julian are the lone survivors of that now infamous meal. Merricat had been sent to her room before supper that night, which happened often since she was a disobedient child. Constance didn't eat any of the sugar on her berries, which is why she was immediately held for questioning (she did all the cooking for the family). Uncle Julian fell ill, but eventually survived, though he was never the same afterwards. There was a trial in which Constance was eventually acquitted, but everyone in the village still believed that she was guilty. So, they shunned the Blackwood sisters and their crazy old uncle.
The girls would have been content to live in this manner indefinitely. However, the outside world wasn't content to leave them alone. Forces beyond their control invade their privacy and set in motion a chain of events that leads to more sorrow and heartache.
I really can't recommend this book highly enough. It is so well-written, and the story develops on several different levels. As with most good literature, everything is not as it seems and things are not necessarily black and white. If you haven't read this one, you'll definitely want to add it to your summer reading list.