Publication Year: 1962
Tags: Thriller, Horror, Classic
The book’s beginning: “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 Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.”
(Admitted bias: This review comes from a writer for whom Sherwood Anderson, Ray Bradbury, and Charles Dickens are Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.)
I can understand, all too easily, why younger readers will find this novella dull, impenetrable, or confusing. It moves at a pace that could be described as that of walking slowly, carefully, through thickly foggy woods, where one’s footing is never sure, and one is never allowed to see too far ahead. The book is “of its time,” when “Gothic” novels were not about mere privileged angst and buckets o’ blood. The story does not spell out everything, leaving only enough clues to make you guess at what might pass for the truth in this household. There is only one truth, simple enough, that is easy to figure out (no spoilers); the rest is the wavering line between truth and illusion that exists in the mind and speech of our narrator, Mary Katherine (or “Merrikat,” as she is most often called). There is no clear path of truth, right from the very beginning of the tale, through the story, to its strangely quiet and hauntingly fitting ending.
(“Truth or illusion, George? You don’t know the difference anymore.” “True; but we must carry on as though we did.” — Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Edward Albee)
My advice to readers new to both the story and this edition: Do not begin by reading the analysis by Jonathan Lethem that appears at the beginning of the Penguin edition. You may read it after, if you must. I recommend not doing so for two reasons. First, the analysis puts too much of the story on display, and in a condition too far out of context, to be truly useful; reading the commentary first will spoil your appetite. Second, I think that Mr. Lethem has over-analyzed the work, fulfilling the British witticism of being “too clever by half.” I grant him his criticism of the work; in my opinion, however, he’s put too much of what might be called a “Feminism v3.0” spin on the tale. To say too much more invites spoilers, but I can offer one comment openly: The character of “Uncle Julian” need not be, as Mr. Lethem suggests, homosexual. In many ways, the tale itself refutes the idea, and in the most important way, Uncle Julian’s predilection (if any) is utterly irrelevant. I would caution any reader against reading too much modern thought into any analysis of this work; it is both counterintuitive and counterproductive. Let this Gothic masterpiece be the brooding, foggy, Jamesian (The Turn of the Screw), madwoman’s narrative that, I believe, Jackson meant it to be.
It’s not a spoiler to note that the narrator is unreliable right from the beginning, claiming to be eighteen years of age when the pattern and foci of her speech are that of a much younger girl of her time. She is not perfidious; there’s no reason to think that she is a liar. She is, however, showing us her world through her own warped mental lens, her own imperfect, rather twisted sensibilities. It is worthwhile to sift through to find clues to what is real and what isn’t, but don’t use too fine a sieve; the point of the narrative is itself, not its verity or falsehood. Anyone who has felt persecution, paranoia, or even simple social discomfort will find much to empathize with. Speaking personally, I can understand Merrikat entirely, from beginning to end. (Pass the sugar bowl when you’re done, won’t you? And aren’t these blueberries fine?)
Enjoy what is a fine and feathery, creepy-crawling, understated horror story in the form of the mind of a child who wishes a town dead, and to live on the moon, and to enjoy her breakfast before making sure that her wards against anyone coming to the house are set tightly and securely. No one must see in, not into our castle…