Constance and Mary Katherine (nicknamed Merricat) lived in the family home with disabled, slightly deranged Uncle Julian. They are the survivors of a family meal when someone laced the sugar with arsenic, a crime for which Constance was tried but acquitted. Down in the village they are feared, mocked, ostracised. Sometimes ladies come to take tea with them, fascinated by the sinister atmosphere.
Then, almost exactly halfway through the book, cousin Charles comes to stay and, six years since the murder, Constance starts to talk of moving on. What can Merricat do to preserve her way of life?
The narrator, Merricat, may be eighteen but she sounds like a little child in her inner dialogue encompassing magic and fantasy. There are moments when her thoughts turn violent, as when she hates the sneering villagers and imagines walking over their bodies. But at home, in the extensive grounds of the family mansion, as she explores with her cat, Jonas, her thoughts become lyrical. This is a world of magic as when Merricat brings leaves and soil into the bedroom where Charles sleeps and hides the furniture so that he won't know where he is and will have to leave, as when she buries objects to remind herself of events and people, and as when those buried objects sometimes prevent her from going places. Is she retarded? Is she mad?
Constance, on the other hand, is the personification of sane domesticity, cooking and cleaning to keep her beloved Merricat safe.
The revelations, the twists and the turns, are all signalled well in advance, but as a sinister evocation of the margin between magic and madness this book holds one's horrified but fascinated attention.
Many wonderful lines, including:
- "The sun was shining and the false, glorious promises of spring were everywhere, showing oddly through the village grime."
- "When Jim Donell thought of something to say he said it as often and in as many ways as possible, perhaps because he had very few ideas and had to wring each one dry."
- "We eat the year away. We eat the spring and the summer and the fall. We wait for something to grow and then we eat it." This book is dominated by food ... and the events in it were triggered by a poisoning.
- "The trees pressed too closely against the sides of the summerhouse, and breathed heavily on its roof."
This was the last novel from Shirley Jackson, who also wrote Hangsaman.
I had the feeling, as I was reading it, that it may have been based on the Lizzie Borden case. Lizzie has long been suspected on murdering her father and stepmother (with an axe) but was acquitted and lived afterwards for many years with her sister in what must have been an uneasy household. Lizzie's fictionalised story was told in See what I have done by Sarah Schmidt.
September 2019; 146 pages
Other books which have 'castle' in their title include:
- In Bluebeard's Castle by George Steiner (literary criticism)
- The Glass Castle by Jeanette Wold
- I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (a classic novel; also made into a film)
- The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro (short stories with a linked, memoir theme)
- The Castle by Franz Kafka (a classic novel)
- The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick (dystopian future novel; also an Amazon prime series)
- The Castle of Adventure by Enid Blyton (a children's novel)
- King of the Castle by Susan Hill (a novel)
- The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (a classic gothic novel)
- Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth (a gothic novel from Jane Austen's time)
- Hatter's Castle by A J Cronin: a novel about a megalomanical bullying patriarch set in Scotland