I must admit, I bought and read this book entirely on a whim. Recently republished by Penguin Modern Classics, I idly read an excerpt on the Penguin website and decided I deserved to read something for fun. Besides, it sounded Gothic, and I have a bit of an obsession with Gothic castles. Shirley Jackson is a cult name in modern Gothic fiction, I think, but although I’m aware of her short stories and, most famously, The Haunting of Hill House, this is the first of Jackson’s books I’ve read, though I’m interested to read more now.
The novel is narrated by Mary Katherine Blackwood, known as Merricat to her family. There aren’t many of her relations left, though, because they were all poisoned several years before the start of the novel. Merricat and her sister, Constance, live alone in the Gothic Blackwood house, isolated because of the local conviction that Constance was a murderer. The sense of loneliness combined with the remarkable family unity of Merricat, Constance and elderly Uncle Julian, living a peaceful but deeply peculiar life barricaded into the house is brilliantly evoked: early on we see Merricat going into the village, suffering the stares of the neighbours as she changes her library books and buys groceries, and the disdain in which she holds them and the fear and suspicion they emanate towards the Blackwoods sets up a creepy atmosphere. This is heightened by the very gradual discoveries that the novel allows us to make.
The house itself, the castle of the title, is hugely significant. I’m always telling students that the castle is virtually a character in Gothic; the castle is ‘where Gothic happens’, and provides a metaphor for both the bodies and the minds of the characters. This is equally true here. The events of the novel are focused entirely on the house, as a ‘safe’ place away from the threatening outside world, and yet it is also the scene of murders, anguish and – it becomes increasingly clear – complex psychological disturbances. The house is both source of life and shelter to the Blackwood sisters, and equally a place of darkness and danger, and as the events of the novel unfold the house itself undergoes dramatic transformations (but I don’t want to give too much away). Merricat’s obsession with her home becomes clearer as her unique and idiosyncratic narration explains the rituals and forms of magic with which she attempts to defend the house from the outside world, and though she is clearly an unreliable and rather disturbed narrator who seems much younger than her eighteen years, she is also, in her combined innocence and naive madness, both appealing and convincing. In this, the castle parallels her psychology.
The threat from the outside world appears much greater than that inside, however, when a long-lost cousin appears and tries to persuade Constance to resume a normal, public life. Castles offer claustrophobic spaces for terrible deeds to happen, thresholds to cross which lead to knowledge one might be better off not knowing, and represent the history that always comes back to haunt us in Gothic literature. This is all true here: it is all the more eerie for the happy moments of homemaking which the sisters share; after all, when something attacks the place where you live, where you think you are safest, what can you do? And this is even more of a problem when that threat comes from within.
What is particularly surprising, perhaps, is that this is also a wickedly humorous novel. Merricat and Constance are likeable, though clearly highly unusual, and they play jokes on each other and other people (for example, offering them cups of tea which they imply might be poisoned). It also raises questions about fear and what we are, or should be, afraid of; how we demonise those we don’t understand, and how happiness is sometimes found in the most unexpected places. As an example of mid-century Gothic, it’s both a period piece and timeless, and I couldn’t put it down.