“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 like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death cap mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.”
So begins a novel that is dark and twisting and deliciously horrifying. The cover may suggest that this is a book for older teenagers who have a Gothic bent to their natures, and no doubt they would enjoy it. Jackson is a master of social commentary, however; her short story “The Lottery” was once required reading for high school and college students. Both stories have small-town persecution as their motifs; both are thought to be set in North Bennington, Vermont.
Constance and Mary Katherine Blackwood (Merricat) are sisters separated from the local community by money, social standing, and the black cloud of mystery surrounding the death of their parents. Uncle Julian lives with them, a broken-down old man bound to a wheelchair, listlessly working on a manuscript. Merricat goes into town once a week for supplies for Constance does not leave the house, not since she was tried and acquitted for the murder of her parents.
Merricat is a prankster; she has an odd propensity for burying objects, creating spells as she tries to twist the world fit in her own bizarre concept. She is enticing and horrifying by turn; often it is difficult to remember she is eighteen. When a distant cousin comes to visit and attempts to remodel all their lives, Merricat springs into action, whirling about like a demented dervish to undermine him and force him to go away. She rules the castle, as she refers to the old family home, and will go to any length to protect her kingdom.
Jackson’s best work is both a horror and mystery story. Her work is graphic only in how she exposes human nature and small-town bigotry. The sisters are twisted and damaged by both their history and nature; the townspeople fare no better. Their attempt to reconcile with the two after their brutal treatment of the family is met with bone-chilling consequences.
This complex, insightful novel deserves to be taken down and read again and again. Jackson proves that the horrors of the mind and attitude of people surpass cheap mutilations and dreary special effects that mark the horror genre, especially in movie scripts. Read this book in bed with a fire going and hot chocolate close by – it will give you gooseflesh that you won’t forget.