I am a huge scaredy-cat. HUGE. I can’t read or watch scary books or movies because otherwise I can’t sleep afterwards. When I finally really do need to sleep, I can’t be alone and the lights need to be on and there must be music. And even then…I ruined a CD of traditional Celtic music that I feel asleep to after one scary movie night (I cannot listen to those songs anymore without fear associations, sad face). It’s too bad, because there’s a whole genre of amazing books (looking at you, Stephen King) that I cannot read because of this. So I was a little nervous when my long-distance book club wanted to theme our October book along the lines of a Halloween spooky-scary. But I’m an adult now (or something like that)…so instead of saying no, I asked them to try and keep it more spooky than scary. And actually, when this book “won” our vote, I was pretty excited. I know it’s a classic story by a classic author and I have had it on my radar before. This was just the push I needed to step out of my comfort zone and pick it up.
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!
This novella is the story of Mary Katherine (Merricat) and Constance Blackwood. They live in a great big house on the edge of a small village, along with their infirm Uncle Julian, and very rarely come out or entertain visitors. There used to be more Blackwoods, but years ago the rest were killed by a fatal amount of arsenic that was added into the sugar bowl. There’s tension and frightened curiosity between them and the rest of the villagers because of that, and the suspicions that, despite her acquittal, Constance was the poisoner. The three remaining Blackwoods live reasonably happily together until the arrival of their cousin, Charles, when everything changes.
First, this book is definitely not one you should read if you like a plot-focused story. This is all about atmosphere and sensation, creating a feeling of anticipation, tension, eeriness. Told in Merricat’s voice, there’s an extra layer of unreliable, childish narration that, in Jackson’s hands, only adds to the creepiness. Because seriously, what is more disturbing than youth with an evil bent? Merricat tells us about the villagers, the Blackwood manor and daily routines and, once he arrives, cousin Charles in a way that definitely leaves you not really knowing what’s real and what’s not. A couple times I was totally convinced that Merricat was a ghost, and then something would happen that would make that impossible. That not knowing leaves the reader feeling very unsettled. And there are some strange quirks, like Uncle Julian’s obsession with figuring out what exactly happened that “last day” everyone was alive or Constance’s obsession with cooking and cleaning the kitchen, that add beautifully to that disquiet in the reader. However, although you get some details as the book goes, there’s nothing clean or sure about the information. And though things do happen, it’s nothing that follows the normal build-denouement-finale format of a “normal” novel. In the end, you are left in a very similar (if not exactly the same) place as where you started, at least as far as Merricat and Constance are concerned. If that’s not your cup of tea, here’s your warning.
I really liked the lack of reliability from Merricat’s narration and the random, but frequent, moments of child-like imagination and fantasy that mark her dialogue and interpersonal interactions. There’s something off about the way that she “takes care of” Constance, and the way Constance humors her, but you cannot really put your finger on what it is or, more frustratingly, why, it is. Regardless, it fit the rest of the tone perfectly. In the same frustratingly-unexplainable-but-perfectly-toned way, I loved Uncle Julian’s fixation on his papers (despite the fact that we never learn what all he found out and recorded there) and Charles’ determination to convince Constance to change the way she and Merricat live (again, without really finding out what was driving those efforts). I also appreciated, though it’s not necessarily one of my favorite things to read about, the mob mentality of the villagers concerning the Blackwood home/family. It was terrifying, how quickly it could spin out of control, and was the exact right plot device to get us to where things are left at the end.
And the end. I’ve already mentioned that there’s no real change from start to finish for Merricat and Constance, but the superficial changes are actually fascinating to me. I don’t know if this was how it’s meant to be read, but for me, this seemed like the beginning of a ghost story. Despite being convinced that Merricat is already a ghost for about half the story, this otherwise seems like the “pre” to a village haunted house myth. Merricat and Constance are, before our eyes, transforming from real people into the old lady ghosts of unknown origin that require regular offerings to keep them happy and are used to scare little kids into behaving. And whether or not that’s right, I’m going to choose to see it like that, because that’s very cool (in my opinion).
Overall, this was such a different read. Both different than what I expected and different than anything else I’ve ever read. Jackson’s language takes mostly normal things, like picking up groceries or having the neighbors over for tea, and makes them chilling, pregnant with expectation for a hammer that may never fall. It’s intense. But at the same time, it’s not “scary” in the traditional sense – I had no trouble sleeping after reading this. It’s gothic, macabre, and I was unnerved…but I was never terrified. It was fascinating and I’m glad I read it, but I can’t say that I loved it. I can respect Jackson’s talent, and if you’re into this style, I can’t imagine it being done much better than this, but it just wasn’t completely for me. However, if you are a mood reader and want something atmospheric for the Fall, even if it’s outside of your normal zone, I’d definitely add this one to the list of books being considered.