“Something wicked this way comes…”
I had intended to review a short story by Susan Hill today, but by half-way through this book, it was clear it had to be this week’s…
Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!
With all the charm and tripping lightness of a fairy dance, Shirley Jackson lures the unsuspecting reader through an enchanted garden into a world of insanity, witchery and murder. The author has taken the elements of Gothic and turned them on their heads, creating a world where the sun shines so brightly that it’s only gradually the reader feels the chill seeping into her bones. No ruined mediaeval castle filled with cobwebby gloom here – this castle is a lovely house, tastefully decorated in white and gold, with interiors so clean that they sparkle in the endless sunshine pouring through the high and plentiful windows. Three people live here (though once there were more) protected not just by the fence that surrounds the grounds, but by the buried charms and magical words that Merricat, our narrator, uses to keep the world out.
I am walking on buried treasure, I thought, with the grass brushing against my hands and nothing around me but the reach of the long field with the grass blowing and the pine woods at the end; behind me was the house, and far off to my left, hidden by the trees and almost out of sight, was the wire fence our father had built to keep people out.
Merricat survived the crime that is at the heart of the story – the wholesale poisoning by arsenic of most of her family when she was just 12. Now she lives with her sister Constance, who everyone assumes is guilty of the crime, even though she was tried and acquitted. The third member of the household is Uncle Julian, another survivor, although he has been left disabled by the experience. While Merricat, now 18, runs childlike and free in the grounds of the house with her constant companion, Jonas the cat, Constance is the homemaker, always cooking and baking, and caring for both Merricat and their uncle. Uncle Julian is writing a memoir of the day of the poisoning, a task made difficult by his failing and confused memory. It is through Uncle Julian’s ramblings and Merricat’s hints and suggestions that the reader gradually gets a picture of what happened.
But regardless of truth or proof, Constance has been tried and found guilty by the villagers. The family were never liked – they fenced themselves in and the villagers out – so now the villagers have an ideal excuse to vent their bitterness. On Merricat’s twice weekly trip to the village for supplies, she is shunned by the adults and jeered at by the children. But once home, back in the enchanted space inside the fence, the little family is safe and happy. Until one day, Merricat’s protections fail, and Cousin Charles comes to visit, bringing with him all the sanity and coarseness of the real world. And when Charles’ arrival awakens new desires in Constance, Merricat’s childlike superstitions turn towards something much darker…
Thursday was my most powerful day. It was the right day to settle with Charles. In the morning Constance decided to make spice cookies for dinner; that was too bad, because if any of us had known we could have told her not to bother, that Thursday was going to be the last day.
Merricat is a unique narrator, though much in the Gothic tradition of the lunatic telling her tale. But though we are forced to recognise the insanity that lives within her imaginings, there is a charm and air of childish innocence about her that leads us to sympathise with her totally; the most disturbing thing about the story is that, though we know someone in the house has committed this awful crime, we can’t condemn – we are firmly on the side of Merricat and her family and against the rest of the world. As the story progresses, the sunshine gradually fades into something very disquieting and truly spine-tingling.
A wonderfully written book that distorts and plays with the reader’s expectations, this reads to me like the ‘true’ story behind the creation of the familiar ‘witch’ myths. We see the story from the inside, but if we look closely we also see how Merricat and Constance would have been viewed by the villagers – two strange women, one suspected of a horrific crime, the other, accompanied everywhere by her knowing cat, using talismans and magical words to ward off strangers. As I left Merricat’s world and returned shivering to my own, it seemed when I looked backwards that perhaps the house was made of gingerbread after all…
To see the great review that inspired me to read this, please click through to LitBeetle’s blog. Thanks, LitBeetle!
Fretful porpentine rating 😯 😯 😯 😯
Overall story rating 😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
Next week on Tuesday Terror! – Susan Hill