Here’s what I knew about this novel by Shirley Jackson before I started reading it. It’s creepy. There’s an old house and some sisters, maybe some ghosts, and lots of secrets. And it’s really very creepy. So not much. I’ve seen it mentioned on a lot of blogs, but either I’ve been forgetting the reviews as soon as I read them or the blog reviews are scant on details. (Given that I mostly remember books by blogging about them, it wouldn’t surprise me a bit to learn that the blog reviews I’ve read explained the premise in detail but that I forgot. Maybe I need to start a book blog blog so I can better remember reviews.)
Anyway, my review will not be particularly scant on detail, but I will try to avoid big spoilers. I say try because the nature of these characters’ story is revealed slowly, and some people will consider early reveals to be spoilers. I do not.
So I was right in thinking that this book was about sisters. Two sisters. Merricat Blackwood, our narrator, is the younger sister. She’s the one who runs errands into town so that her older sister, Constance, doesn’t have to. Merricat tell us early on that most of her family is dead. Her wheelchair-bound uncle, Julian, still survives and lives with Merricat and Constance. The townspeople have viewed the family, especially Constance, with suspicion ever since the rest of the Blackwoods were poisoned with arsenic that had been mixed in the sugar bowl.
The deaths are the first of the terrible things to happen to the sisters—the terrible thing that happened in the past. But some other terrible thing is looming. Merricat hints at it when the novel opens:
The last time I glanced at the library books on the kitchen shelf they were more than five months overdue, and I wondered whether I would have chosen differently if I had known that these were the last books, the ones which would stand forever on our kitchen shelf. We rarely moved things; the Blackwoods were never much of a family for restlessness and stirring.
The Blackwoods seem to live by routine. The routine keeps them safe. It enables them to care for each other. Staying at home is one way to preserve the routine and keep out the suspicions and demands of the outside world. Shirley Jackson was herself agoraphobic, and the Blackwoods’ sense of safety in the home feels both absolutely right and horribly wrong. The world is terrifying, especially when the neighbors are cruel and suspicious. But the world will not be easily turned away.
For the Blackwoods, the world comes to the door in the person of a cousin, Charles. His arrival brings to the surface Constance’s feeling that their current isolation cannot, perhaps should not, last forever. Isolation may be safe, but what would it cost to preserve it?
Of course, a great cataclysm eventually occurs, but I think the bigger cataclysm is internal. Actually, it may be the lack of cataclysm that’s the biggest thing. However you might look at it, the drama of this book is internal. Death and destruction pale in comparison to the breaking of a mind. It’s not houses or neighbors or routines that imprison, it’s minds. It’s minds that are creepy. It’s minds that contain ghosts. The terror of this book is all in the mind.