Merricat's voiceâingenuous, defiant, and razor-alertâis the book's triumph, and the river along which this little fable of merry disintegration flows. Despite declaring her eighteen years in the first paragraph, Merricat feels younger, her voice a kind of cousin to Frankie's in Carson McCuller's
The Member of the Wedding
, or Mattie's in Charles Portis's
: an archetype of the feral, presexual tomboy. Merricat is far more disturbing, though, precisely for being a grown woman; what's sublimated in her won't be resolved by adolescence. Indeed, typically for Jackson, sexuality is barely present in the book and, needless to say, sexuality is therefore everywhere in its absence.
The story is a frieze disturbed. Merricat has stilled her family, nailed them like a book to a tree, forever to be unread. When Cousin Charles arrives, transparently in search of the Blackwoods' hidden fortune (though like everything else in the book, the money's a purloined letter, secreted in full view), he brings a ripple of disturbance that his cynical mission doesn't fully account for. Uncle Julian leads us to the brink of speculation when he mentions their ages: Cousin Charles is thirty-two, and Constance is twenty-eight. No oneâcertainly least of all Merricatâwill say that Constance is a kind of Emily Dickinson, drowning sexual yearning in her meticulous housework, and in sheltering her damaged uncle and dangerous sister, but certainly that is the risk that Charles truly represents: the male principle. (Uncle Julian is definitively emasculated, possibly gayâcertainly it was his harmlessness that permitted his survival of the poisoning.)
Merricat, an exponent of sympathetic magic, attacks this risk of nature's taking its course by confronting it with nature's raw, prehuman elements: first by scattering soil and leaves in Charles's bed, and then by starting a fire: better to incinerate the female stronghold than allow it to be invaded. It's a cinch to excavate a Freudian subtext in the scene of the firemen arriving at the house (“the men stepping across our doorsill, dragging their hoses, bringing filth and confusion and danger into our house,” “the big men pushing in,” “the dark men going in and out of our front door”)âjust as easy as to do the same with the prose of Henry James. From the Oppenheimer biography we know Shirley Jackson objected very strictly to this sort of interpretation, as James surely would have, and as we likely ought to on their behalf. The point isn't that this material
embedded in Jackson's narrative; the point is that its embedding is in the nature of an instinctive allusiveness and complexity, forming one layer among many, and that to trumpet such an interpretation as a master key to material so nuanced would be to betray the full operation of its ambiguity. Sex is hardly the only sublimated subject here. Consider that great American taboo, class status: in “The Lottery” undertones of class contempt were coolly objectified, in
the imperious, eccentric Blackwoods are conscious of their snobbery toward the village, and conscious, too, of how the persecution they suffer confirms their elevated self-image.
This double confession of culpability is typical of the snares in Jackson's design: for many of her characters, to revel in injury is a form of exultation, and to suffer exile from drably conformist groupsâor familiesâis not only an implicit moral victory, but a form of bohemian one-upmanship as well: we have always lived in the (out)castle, and we wouldn't want it any other way. Jackson, a famous mother and a tormented daughter, also encoded in her novel an unresolved argument about child-rearing. When at the height of her crisis Merricat retreats to the summer house and imaginatively repopulates the family table with her murdered parents, they indulge her: “Mary Katherine should have anything she wants, my dear. Our most loved daughter must have anything she likes . . . Mary Katherine is never to be punished . . . Mary Katherine must be guarded and cherished. Thomas, give you sister your dinner; she would like more to eat . . . bow all your heads to our adored Mary Katherine.”
The terror of the scene is intricate, for we suspect these fantasies are as much recreations as revisions of past reality. Elsewhere Uncle Julian muses aloud about whether Merricat has been too utterly adored to develop a conscience. The motif links
to the midcentury's crypto-feminist wave of child-as-devil tales
The Bad Seed
, and to the sister-horror film
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
But Jackson's book is
The Bad Seed
as rewritten by Pinter or Beckettâindeed, Jackson's vision of human life as a kind of squatter's inheritance in a diminishing castle recalls the before-and-after of the two acts of
, where Beckett's Winnie, first buried up to her waist, and then to her neck, boasts: “This is what I find so wonderful. The way man adapts himself. To changing conditions.” As Constance and Merricat's world shrinks it grows more defiantly self-possessed, and as threatening elements are purged their castle gains in representative accuracy as a model of the (dual) self. When at last the villagers repent of their cruelty and begin gifting the castle's doorstep with cooked meals and baked goods, the situation mirrors that of Merricat's playacting in the summerhouseâonly this time the offerings laid at her feet are real, not imaginary. The world has obliged, and placed a crown on Merricat's head. Her empire is stasis.
For Pascal Covici
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 dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and
the deathcup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.
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. We dealt with the small surface transient objects, the books and the flowers and the spoons, but underneath we had always a solid foundation of stable possessions. We always put things back where they belonged. We dusted and swept under tables and chairs and beds and pictures and rugs and lamps, but we left them where they were; the tortoise-shell toilet set on our mother's dressing table was never off place by so much as a fraction of an inch. Blackwoods had always lived in our house, and kept their things in order; as soon as a new Blackwood wife moved in, a place was found for her belongings, and so our house was built up with layers of Blackwood property weighting it, and keeping it steady against the world.
It was on a Friday in late April that I brought the library books into our house. Fridays and Tuesdays were terrible days, because I had to go into the village. Someone had to go to the library, and the grocery; Constance never went past her own garden, and Uncle Julian could not. Therefore it was not pride that took me into the village twice a week, or even stubbornness, but only the simple need for books and food. It may have been pride that brought me into Stella's for a cup of coffee before I started home; I told myself it was pride and would not avoid going into Stella's no matter how much I wanted to be at home, but I knew, too, that Stella would see me pass if I did not go in, and perhaps think I was afraid, and that thought I could not endure.
“Good morning, Mary Katherine,” Stella always said, reaching over to wipe the counter with a damp rag, “how are you today?”
“Very well, thank you.”
“And Constance Blackwood, is she well?”
“Very well, thank you.”
“And how is
“As well as can be expected. Black coffee, please.”
If anyone else came in and sat down at the counter I would leave my coffee without seeming hurried, and leave, nodding goodbye to Stella. “Keep well,” she always said automatically as I went out.
I chose the library books with care. There were books in our house, of course; our father's study had books covering two walls, but I liked fairy tales and books of history, and Constance liked books about food. Although Uncle Julian never took up a book, he liked to see Constance reading in the evenings while he worked at his papers, and sometimes he turned his head to look at her and nod.
“What are you reading, my dear? A pretty sight, a lady with a book.”
“I'm reading something called
The Art of Cooking,
We never sat quietly for long, of course, with Uncle Julian in the room, but I do not recall that Constance and I have ever opened the library books which are still on our kitchen shelf. It was a fine April morning when I came out of the library; the sun was shining and the false glorious promises of spring were everywhere, showing oddly through the village grime. I remember that I stood on the library steps holding my books and looking for a minute at the soft hinted green in the branches against the sky and wishing, as I always did, that I could walk home across the sky instead of through the village. From the library steps I could cross the street directly and walk on the other side along to the grocery, but that meant that I must pass the general store and the men sitting in front. In this village the men stayed young and did the gossiping and the women aged with grey evil weariness and stood silently waiting for the men to get up and come home. I could leave the library and walk up the street on this side until I was opposite the grocery and then cross; that was preferable, although it took me past the post office and the Rochester house with the piles of rusted tin and the broken automobiles and the empty gas tins and the old mattresses and plumbing fixtures and wash tubs that the Harler family brought home andâI genuinely believeâloved.
The Rochester house was the loveliest in town and had once had a walnut-panelled library and a second-floor ballroom and a profusion of roses along the veranda; our mother had been born there and by rights it should have belonged to Constance. I decided as I always did that it would be safer to go past the post office and the Rochester house, although I disliked seeing the house where our mother was born. This side of the street was generally deserted in the morning, since it was shady, and after I went into the grocery I would in any case have to pass the general store to get home, and passing it going and coming was more than I could bear.
Outside the village, on Hill Road and River Road and Old Mountain, people like the Clarkes and the Carringtons had built new lovely homes. They had to come through the village to get to Hill Road and River Road because the main street of the village was also the main highway across the state, but the Clarke children and the Carrington boys went to private schools and the food in the Hill Road kitchens came from the towns and the city; mail was taken from the village post office by car along the River Road and up to Old Mountain, but the Mountain people mailed their letters in the towns and the River Road people had their hair cut in the city.
I was always puzzled that the people of the village, living in their dirty little houses on the main highway or out on Creek Road, smiled and nodded and waved when the Clarkes and the Carringtons drove by; if Helen Clarke came into Elbert's Grocery to pick up a can of tomato sauce or a pound of coffee her cook had forgotten everyone told her “Good morning,” and said the weather was better today. The Clarkes' house is newer but no finer than the Blackwood house. Our father brought home the first piano ever seen in the village. The Carringtons own the paper mill but the Blackwoods own all the land between the highway and the river. The Shepherds of Old Mountain gave the village its town hall, which is white and peaked and set in a green lawn with a cannon in front. There was some talk once of putting in zoning laws in the village and tearing down the shacks on Creek Road and building up the whole village to match the town hall, but no one ever lifted a finger; maybe they thought the Blackwoods might take to attending town meetings if they did. The villagers get their hunting and fishing licenses in the town hall, and once a year the Clarkes and the Carringtons and the Shepherds attend the town meeting and solemnly vote to get the Harler junk yard off Main Street and take away the benches in front of the general store, and each year the villagers gleefully outvote them. Past the town hall, bearing to the left, is Blackwood Road, which is the way home. Blackwood Road goes in a great circle around the Blackwood land and along every inch of Blackwood Road is a wire fence built by our father. Not far past the town hall is the big black rock which marks the entrance to the path where I unlock the gate and lock it behind me and go through the woods and am home.
The people of the village have always hated us.
I played a game when I did the shopping. I thought about the children's games where the board is marked into little spaces and each player moves according to a throw of the dice; there were always dangers, like “lose one turn” and “go back four spaces” and “return to Start,” and little helps, like “advance three spaces” and “take an extra turn.” The library was my start and the black rock was my goal. I had to move down one side of Main Street, cross, and then move up the other side until I reached the black rock, when I would win. I began well, with a good safe turn along the empty side of Main Street, and perhaps this would turn out to be one of the very good days; it was like that sometimes, but not often on spring mornings. If it was a very good day I would later make an offering of jewelry out of gratitude.