Since it’s still a haunting month, I decided to pick up the next book by Shirley Jackson after The Lottery, Summer People and Haunting of Hill House and as it happens when you start reading too much of the same author, an image emerges. A lonely person, isolated, unsure, well read but afraid of people.
I’ve read somewhere that Shirley Jackson was suffering from severe agoraphobia and she rarely left her house. She came out with a new horror story every now and then and her style definitely showed her condition.
Agoraphobia (literally: “fear of the marketplace”) is an anxiety disorder associated with a fear of open spaces. But really it’s more complicated than that. In particular, sufferers may be afraid of public spaces like shopping malls, airports and, in extreme cases, even simply leaving the house. Any place where escape might be difficult or help is not easily at hand if things go wrong could be a problem environment.
Her agoraphobia is present in the menacing outlook of the villagers in The Lottery and The Summer people and Eleanor Vance in the Haunting of Hill House is suffering from it as well.
One of Jackson’s most famous works is We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which concerns two women, one of them agoraphobic, who live with the hostility of the townspeople around them. Yet if the novel was meant to exorcise Jackson’s demons, it failed: she was exhausted by writing it and would not leave the house for almost three months.
“I would have liked to come into the grocery some morning and see them all, even the Elberts and the children, lying there crying with the pain of dying. I would help myself to groceries, I thought, stepping over their bodies, taking whatever I fancied from the shelves, and go home, with perhaps a kick for Mrs.Donell while she lay there. I was never sorry when I had thoughts like this; I only wished they would come true.”
Living in the Blackwood family home with only her sister Constance and her Uncle Julian for company, Merricat just wants to preserve their delicate way of life. But ever since Constance was acquitted of murdering the rest of the family, the world isn’t leaving the Blackwoods alone. And when Cousin Charles arrives, armed with overtures of friendship and a desperate need to get into the safe, Merricat (short from Mary Katherine) must do everything in her power to protect the remaining family.
The story is very whimsical and sometimes funny and there is a circling around themes like a bee attracted to sugar water.
“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!”
The children screaming sing-along songs about Merricat indicating that through common culture or intuition, she and not her sister was the one considered to have poisoned all her family by tainting the sugar with arsenic.
“Fate intervened. Some of us, that day, she led inexorably through the gates of death. Some of us, innocent and unsuspecting, took, unwillingly, that one last step to oblivion. Some of us took very little sugar.”
The sister who is obsessed with the kitchen and keeping the house clean and the uncle Julian who is suffering from dementia and keeps remembering people from the past and confusing Cousin Charles with his brother.
“I have often thought,” muses Merricat, “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 … 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.”
Bit by bit, the facts come out. There has been a murder trial, with an acquittal for Constance. Never well liked, the remaining Blackwoods are now shunned by the townspeople and exist in prosperous and eccentric loneliness.
Only when a cousin, Charles, unexpectedly appears on the scene does the curtain against the outside world part a little. Constance seems tempted to peek out, but Merricat hates Charles with a young witch’s vehemence, and in her resentment nearly destroys them all. She resents Charles wearing their father’s watch and ring and scarf and sleeping in their father’s room. She wants Charles to leave and set their schedules back to normal. She hates Charles so much she makes his room inhospitable and wets his mattress and puts rocks and sticks where his “stolen” property was set.
“I would have to find something else to bury here and I wished it could be Charles.”
Constance just smiles and tries to placate irate Charles, trying to keep their only tie to the outside world happy and still there. As he continues to berate Merricat, Constance tries to intervene but she is shunned back to her place.
“I disliked having a fork pointed at me and I disliked the sound of the voice never stopping; I wished he would put food on the fork and put it into his mouth and strangle himself.”
We get to know why Charles appeared after all these years: he was interested in the safe in the study and in uncle Julian’s papers. He was looking for the Blackwood fortune and feels that it’s hidden away from him by none other than Merricat (who burried some coins)
I was surprised to find out that Merricat was 18 years old! I always penned her as a younger child due to her being still child-like in habits but a thousand years old in intuition.
“I can’t help it when people are frightened,” says Merricat. “I always want to frighten them more.”
“I had made sure of what to say to him before I came to the table. ‘The Amanita phalloides,’ I said to him, ‘holds three different poisons. There is amanitin, which works slowly and is most potent. There is phalloidin, which acts at once, and there is phallin, which dissolves red corpuscles, although it is the least potent. The first symptoms do not appear until seven to twelve hours after eating, in some cases not before twenty-four or even forty hours. The symptoms begin with violent stomach pains, cold sweat, vomiting—”
When a pipe catches fire upstairs and burns through the house like a blaze, the two girls hide with uncle Julian outside and watch the circus unfold.
The book depicts a lovely picture of mob mentality when the entire village goes into a frenzy when the Blackwoods house is ablaze and they vandalize it and break windows, chairs and even spoons.
Merricat takes Constance to her special hiding place and covers her with leaves. She’s angry at the townspeople and in everything they break she sees memories which are defaced. Her mother’s porcelain statuettes, the curtains that she was so proud of.
“I’m going to put death in all their food and watch them die.”
This is when Constance finds out who was behind the murders. Merricat was the one who killed the family but this revelation does not shatter Constance. I believe she always knew about her sister and her deadly inclinations.
Once everyone had gone home, they barricade themselves in the remains of the house, board it all up and clean the kitchen and the hallway. They continue living there in the upcoming days and months and years until they become some sort of a local legend.
People from the village feel guilty about what they’ve done and they leave food at their doorstep – pie, chicken, jams – and an apology note.
The two sisters go out by night or early dusk and spend the rest of their days behind the door and just in the company of one another.
Oh Constance, we are so happy