When they teach you public speaking, there is a concept called “ho-hum”. This is a brief statement at the very starting point of the speech, sufficiently interesting so that the audience will immediately sit up and take notice. It is the “hook” with which the speaker snares them.
I have found that this works very well in narrative fiction too. If the first paragraph is sufficiently interesting, the reader continues long enough to get pulled into the story. While this is not essential, many great novels have great opening paragraphs (Pride and Prejudice, To Kill a Mockingbird, One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Jewel in the Crown… these are some examples which immediately come to mind). Now, I will add this novel also to the list.
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 our family is dead.
Mary Katherine Blackwood, or “Merricat” as she is nicknamed, is the child-woman narrator of this extremely disturbing novel by Shirley Jackson. As the novel opens, only three members of the rich Blackwood family are surviving: Merricat, her elder sister Constance, and their ailing uncle Julian. The remaining members – Merricat’s father, mother, younger brother Thomas and Julian’s wife Dorothy are all dead of arsenic poisoning which happened six years ago. Constance, who cooked on the day, has been tried and acquitted. She survived because she did not take sugar on her blackberries, the medium in which the arsenic was administered: Merricat survived because she was sent to bed without supper in disgrace (something which happened quite often): and Julian survived, even though he was affected, because he took less of the sugar. Constance falls under suspicion because she was the cook, did not take the contaminated food, and washed the bowl in which it was kept before it could be forensically examined.
As a person who cut his milk-teeth on Agatha Christie, the identity of the murderer was evident to me after a few pages: and I don’t think Ms. Jackson’s aim was to write a mystery at all. For the duration of this short novel, we are forced to live in the mind of the seriously disturbed narrator, a child trapped inside a woman’s body. It is through her eyes that we see the other characters and the world in general. This is like seeing things in a “funny mirror” – it distorts and provides a weird sort of clarity at the same time, by emphasising certain aspects out of proportion.
Constance does not venture forth outside the house at all: and Uncle Julian is an invalid eccentric, who keeps on writing about that fateful day six years ago, over and over. The villagers, in true Shirley Jackson style, are frighteningly evil: they hate the Blackwoods – originally because of their privileged status, then more openly after the poisoning incident. Because they feel they can vent their anger openly now, they taunt Merricat mercilessly while she does her shopping. The Blackwoods’ “own set”, the moneyed people like the Clarkes and the Carringtons, show token sympathy for them; but when we look at them through the narrator’s distorted lens, we see only show and a morbid curiosity.
The family continues to live in their big house, cut off from the villagers, “protected” by the magical talismans installed at various places around the grounds by Merricat, when their peaceful life is shattered by the arrival of cousin Charles, the son of Merricat’s father’s elder brother, who disowned them after the incident. Charles is ostensibly there to help them reintegrate into society: the real reason is money, which the Blackwoods have in plenty. Constance is charmed by Charles but the eccentric Julian and the disturbed Merricat can see through the subterfuge.
The story moves towards its frightening climax as Charles and Merricat lock horns with increasing mutual antagonism. And when it comes, it is devastating in the extreme – but it is in the resolution that Ms. Jackson really displays her mastery over the medium. Instead of a blast and the subsequent silence, we are left with a smouldering fire which will haunt us for days to come.
Darkness is always present in our midst. Most of the time, we shove it under the carpet as it is not a nice thing to look at. Writers and artists sometimes feel it more strongly, which is why we get painters like Frieda Kahlo and authors like Shirley Jackson.
The feminine is seen as mysterious, dark and moist (I am talking here of archetypes; the stuff of myths and dreams, not actual women). I have seen that women authors (Daphne du Maurier, Emily Brontë et al) have a much better connection to this part of the human psyche. This is possibly why the mythical goddesses are more mysterious than the Gods – nurturing and frightening at the same time.
Ms. Jackson, through the device of framing the story through the experience of a disturbed female protagonist, has succeeded in highlighting the seething void beneath the surface of the polished civil society. Towards the end, the mask slips away totally (as in her story The Lottery) and the primal being shows its ugly teeth. And the resolution – where the Blackwood sisters attain a sort of pagan goddess status and their home becomes a shrine which is reviled, feared and worshipped at the same time – is a masterpiece. This takes us to the realms of poesy where myths and fairy tales are born.