I came to the Shirley Jackson party late. The first thing I read was The Haunting of Hill House, and that was just last year. On my way to the park for a lunchtime walk and brain-clearing, I pulled a parcel from the post box. In the park I didn’t refrain from tearing open said parcel because, well, book. I did laps whilst reading this tremendously weird tale, and by the time I returned home there was a kind of strange translucent wallpaper over my vision, an image of Hill House superimposed on the things of my everyday life. That’s kind of disturbing.
But that’s not what I wanted to talk about—Hill House (not sane, but brilliant) led me to We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and the thoroughly magnificently malignant creation, Mary Katherine Blackwood. Merricat, with her strange acts of sympathetic magic, her even stranger magical thinking, and her almost complete lack of conscience—I say “almost” because she does seem to know she’s doing wrong, but she shrugs and does it anyway because it’s all in the service of what she believes is required.
Jackson introduces her in an act of explicit characterisation. Merricat tells us about herself, controlling what we know of her:
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 deathcup mushroom… Everyone else in my family is dead.
Reading this, we take in the information but not necessarily its weight. She tells us, first and foremost, what is most important to her.
We first encounter Merricat on her journey into the village for groceries. She gives us more of her family history and we see her being tormented by the local yokels. Our sympathy is engaged, we’re outraged at grown men picking on a young girl with such spite. They are, we believe, stereotypical louts, probably inbred. How dare they?
Merricat comes through with her dignity intact; she plots an imaginative yet understandable revenge. We’re still with her. She walks back home, along the road, through the woods that surround the Blackwood house… however, this is where our certainty about her begins to wobble. It’s the small things, like the nailing of a book to a tree, the burying of a box of coins, all the tiny protective magics she’s undertaken to keep the boundaries of the property safe. We wonder if persecution has made her unstable, or is it simply a function of managing a fear otherwise too great to contend with, or… But we remain sympathetic, empathetic. We remain on Team Merricat.
But then the details keep coming, dropped into our perception like stones in the pocket of a woman treading water. There is Uncle Julian who never addresses the girl, and Constance who has been a shut-in for the past six years, there is Cousin Charles who comes a’wooing with secret intent; there is a tale of arsenic and sugar and blackberries. Gradually we are pulled down to face what Merricat actually is: a nutbag. The murderer of almost her entire family. Despite protestations of love for her sister, she still let Constance go on trial for what she herself had done. She is jealous, dangerously so; when there seems the prospect of a kind of happiness for Constance, Merricat does her destructive best to derail it.
When we reach the end of the book, we sit back and catch our breath. We return to that opening paragraph and realise that, yes, Jackson told us everything we needed to know, but she blinded us. The what-we-now-know to be an unreliable narrator has camouflaged her truths amongst other information (another wonderful example of this is Alan Moore’s ‘I Travel in Suspenders’ in Voice of the Fire). The strange and interesting details about wishing to have been born a werewolf, liking Constance and Richard Plantagenet, about disliking dogs and noise, is hand-waving, a distraction from what matters.
When I think of Jackson’s creation of Merricat, I’m reminded of that line from The Usual Suspects: ‘The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist’, and I think Jackson’s work is a bit like that. She tells us first of all that the devil does not exist (‘Here is the world, it is like this.’), but then undermines this the further we get into the story. With tiny details she gnaws away at supporting beams that seem unimportant until the whole structure begins to teeter. We are turned on our heads, which is the cleverest thing a writer can do via the unreliable narrator—but by first making us love this strange, broken girl, then in revealing her true nature, Jackson breaks our hearts. That’s what the best writing does. For the reader, Merricat will delight and disturb; for the writer, it sets a very high bar to which to aspire.
This article was originally published in December 2014 as part of our Writers on Writing series.
Angela Slatter writes dark fantasy and horror. She is the author of the Aurealis Award-winning The Girl with No Hands and Other Tales, the WFA-shortlisted Sourdough and Other Stories, and the new collection/mosaic novel (with Lisa L Hannett), The Female Factory.