To read a Shirley Jackson novel is to enter a world where the ordinary is entwined with evil and the mundane is tangled up with madness. Sisters Constance and Mary Catherine (Merricat) Blackwood live in a beautiful house, surrounded by beautiful things brought there by generations of Blackwood women before them. Constance tends the garden and puts up preserves, while Merricat explores the woods with her black cat, Jonas. We soon find out that the rest of the Blackwood family have been poisoned — brought down by a dinner capped off with a dessert of blackberries and a sugar bowl full of arsenic. Gone are the girls’ mother, father, brother and aunt. The only survivor is old Uncle Julian, but he is now an invalid since partaking of the macabre meal.
The village near the Blackwood estate is a gray and dreary place filled with villagers who are hostile and suspicious of Constance, even though she was acquitted of murder. Children and adults alike taunt the girls with the rhyme, “Merricat”, said Connie, “Would you like a cup of tea?” “Oh no,” said Merricat, “You’ll poison me!” The fact that she took her time calling for help and washed the sugar bowl before it arrived has condemned her in the eyes of the villagers. As Merricat says, “the people of the village have always hated us.” Now it’s just Constance and Merricat and poor old Uncle Julian, alone in the big house. As with The Haunting of Hill House, Jackson’s other gothic horror novel, the house itself is a major character in this tale. The village is a dark scary place for Constance and Merricat, while the house is their “castle”, bright and peaceful and safe. When long lost Cousin Charles arrives one day intent on ensconcing himself in the house and partaking of the family fortune, Merricat, obsessed with keeping their self-imposed isolation intact, fights back with disastrous consequences.
This was Jackson’s last complete novel, published in 1962. She was ill at the time she was writing it and her journals from that time spoke of her desire for control and refuge. She suffered what was then called “a nervous breakdown” shortly after it’s publication, and passed away at age 45 of heart failure in 1965. Her gothic fiction, including classic short story The Lottery, highlights the chilling effect of evil underlying the ordinary in everyday life.