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The Witchcraft of Shirley Jackson

June Mirken Mintz
Shirley Jackson, 1938

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.

—Merricat, We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Of the precocious children and adolescents of mid-twentieth-century American fiction—a dazzling lot that includes the tomboys Frankie of Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding (1946) and Scout of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), the murderous eight-year-old Rhoda Penmark of William March’s The Bad Seed (1954), and the slightly older, disaffected Holden Caulfield of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and Esther Greenwood of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963)—none is more memorable than eighteen-year-old “Merricat” of Shirley Jackson’s masterpiece of Gothic suspense We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962). At once feral child, sulky adolescent, and Cassandra-like seer, Merricat addresses the reader as an intimate:

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.

Merricat speaks with a seductive and disturbing authority, never drawn to justifying her actions but only to recounting them. One might expect We Have Always Lived in the Castle to be a confession, of a kind—after all, one or another of the Blackwood sisters poisoned their entire family, six years before—but Merricat has nothing to confess, still less to regret. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a romance with an improbable—magical—happy ending. As readers we are led to smile at Merricat’s childish self-definition, as one who dislikes “washing myself”; it will be many pages before we come to realize the significance of Amanita phalloides and the wish to have been born a werewolf.

In this deftly orchestrated opening, Merricat’s wholly sympathetic creator/ collaborator Shirley Jackson has struck every essential note of her Gothic tale of sexual repression and rhapsodic vengeance; as it unfolds in ways both inevitable and unexpected, We Have Always Lived in the Castle becomes a New England fairy tale of the more wicked variety, in which a “happy ending” is both ironic and literal, the consequence of unrepentant witchcraft and a terrible sacrifice—of others.

Like other similarly isolated and estranged hypersensitive young-woman protagonists of Shirley Jackson’s fiction—Natalie of Hangsaman (1951), Elizabeth of The Bird’s Nest (1954), Eleanor of The Haunting of Hill House (1959)—Merricat is socially maladroit, highly self-conscious, and disdainful of others. She is “special”—her witchery appears to be self-invented, an expression of desperation and a yearning to stop time with no connection to satanic practices, still less to Satan. (Merricat is too willful a witch to align herself with a putative higher power, especially a masculine power.) Her voice is sharp, funny, engaging—and teasing. For more than one hundred pages Merricat taunts us with what she knows, and we don’t know; her recounting of the tragic Blackwood family history is piecemeal, and in the tangled backstory there is an echo of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw—that masterwork of unreliable narration in which we are intimate witnesses to a naively repressed young woman’s voyeuristic experience of sexual transgression and “exquisite pathos.”

Like the innocent pubescent-girl protagonists of The Member of the Wedding and To Kill a Mockingbird, Merricat Blackwood appears to be a typical product of small-town rural America—much of her time is spent outdoors, alone with her companion cat Jonas; she’s a tomboy who wanders in the woods, unwashed and her hair uncombed; she’s distrustful of adults, and of authority; despite being un- educated, she is shrewdly intelligent and bookish. At times Merricat behaves as if mildly retarded, but only outwardly; inwardly, she’s razor-sharp in her observations and hyper-alert to threats to her well-being. (Like many damaged people, Merricat most fears change in the unvarying rituals of her household.) A mysterious amalgam of the childlike and the treacherous, Merricat is “domesticated” by only one person, her older sister Constance:

Wear your boots if you wander today,” Constance told me….

I love you, Constance,” I said.

I love you too, silly Merricat.”

There is a lovely lyricism to her observations when she’s alone and out-of-doors:

The day outside was full of changing light, and Jonas danced in and out of shadows as he followed me…. We were going to the long field which today looked like an ocean, although I had never seen an ocean; the grass was moving in the breeze and the cloud shadows passed back and forth and the trees in the distance moved….

I am walking on buried treasure, I thought, with the grass brushing against my hands and nothing around me but the reach of the long field with the grass blowing and the pine woods at the end; behind me was the house, and far off to my left, hidden by trees and almost out of sight, was the wire fence our father had built to keep people out.

Even in this pastoral setting Merricat is brought back forcibly to the prejudices of her upbringing: the Blackwoods’ contempt for others.

If Merricat is mad, it’s a “poetic” madness like the madness of the young heroine of Jackson’s The Bird’s Nest, whose subdued personality harbors several selves, or the madness celebrated by Emily Dickinson—“Much Madness is divinest Sense—/To a discerning Eye—/Much Sense—the starkest Madness—/’Tis the Majority….” Her condition suggests paranoid schizophrenia in which anything out of the ordinary is likely to be threatening and all things are signs and symbols to be deciphered—“All the omens spoke of change.” Merricat is determined to deflect “change”—the threat to her household—through witchcraft, a kind of simple, sympathetic magic involving “safeguards”:

the box of silver dollars I had buried by the creek, and the doll buried in the long field, and the book nailed to the tree in the pine woods; as long as they were where I had put them nothing could get in to harm us.

Merricat—surely like her creator—is one for whom words are highly potent as well:

On Sunday morning the change was one day nearer. I was resolute about not thinking my three magic words and would not let them into my mind, but the air of change was so strong that there was no avoiding it; change lay over the stairs and the kitchen and the garden like fog. I would not forget my magic words; they were MELODY GLOUCESTER PEGASUS, but I refused to let them into my mind.

By degrees we learn that there are many household tasks that Merricat isn’t allowed to do, like help in preparing food or handle knives. Minor frustrations have a violent effect upon her:

I could not breathe; I was tied with wire, and my head was huge and going to explode…. I had to content myself with smashing the milk pitcher which waited on the table; it had been our mother’s and I left the pieces on the floor so Constance would see them.

It’s ironic that Merricat’s aristocratic disdain of other people derives from her identification with her rich New England family—now nearly extinct—whom she seems to have hated violently when they were alive. It may have been her parents’ disciplining of her that precipitated the family tragedy when, as Uncle Julian reminisces, Merricat was “a great child of twelve, sent to bed without her supper.”

In the novel’s opening, suspenseful chapter, Merricat must make her way from the Blackwood manor house at the edge of the village into town, as the intermediary between the remaining Blackwoods and the outer world:

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.

Here is no Grover’s Corners as in Thornton Wilder’s sentimental classic of small-town America, Our Town: this is a New England town of “dirty little houses on the main highway”—a place of unmitigated “ugliness” and “rot” inhabited by individuals poised to “come at [Merricat] like a flock of taloned hawks…birds descending, striking, gashing with razor claws.” Hostility toward the Blackwoods seems to have predated the Blackwood poisoning scandal:

The people of the village have always hated us…. The blight on the village never came from the Blackwoods; the villagers belonged here and the village was the only proper place for them.

I always thought about rot when I came toward the row of stores; I thought about burning black painful rot that ate away from inside, hurting dreadfully. I wished it on the village.

Merricat’s fantasies are childish, alarmingly sadistic: “I am walking on their bodies”—“I am going to put death in all their food and watch them die.”

I would have liked to come into the grocery some morning and see them all, even the Elberts and the children, lying there crying with the pain and dying. I would then help myself to groceries…stepping over their bodies, taking whatever I fancied from the shelves.

Such unmitigated hatred, out of all proportion to any source within We Have Always Lived in the Castle, suggests a savage Swiftian indignation that passes beyond social satire of the kind written by Jackson’s older contemporaries Sinclair Lewis and H.L. Mencken, into the realm of psychopathological caricature. (Jackson’s difficulties with her fellow citizens in North Bennington, Vermont, are well documented in Judy Oppenheimer’s harrowing biography Private Demons (1988): the suggestion is that Jackson and her husband, the flamboyant “Jewish-intellectual” cultural critic Stanley Edgar Hyman—who taught at Bennington College—aroused resentment, if not outright anti-Semitism, in their more conventional Christian neighbors.)

The animosity of the villagers for the Blackwoods suggests both the priggish racism of Jackson’s subtly modulated short story “Flower Garden”—in which a newcomer to a New England village unwisely befriends a resident black man—and the barbaric behavior of the villagers of Jackson’s most famous story, “The Lottery,” in which a yearly ritual of scapegoating and stoning to death is enacted by lottery. Here, in a place said to closely resemble the North Bennington of Shirley Jackson’s day, a dirge-like tune of unknown origin prevails from generation to generation, unquestioned by the brainless local citizenry: “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.”

In We Have Always Lived in the Castle, a jeering chant follows in Merricat’s wake when she ventures into town:

Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?

Oh, no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.

Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?

Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!

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