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The Witchcraft of Shirley Jackson

In the village, life is crude, cruel, noisy, and ugly; in the Blackwood manor house, life is quiet, sequestered, governed by the daily custom and ritual of mealtimes, above all inward—“Almost all of our life was lived toward the back of the house, on the lawn and the garden where no one else ever came…. The rooms we used together were the back ones.” The Blackwood house isn’t haunted in quite the way that Hill House is haunted (“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within…”) but its former, now deceased inhabitants emerge in portentous times, in Merricat’s sleep, calling her name—to warn her? To torment her?

By degrees we discover the secret of the Blackwood house—the poisonings, by arsenic, six years before, of the entire family except Constance, then twenty-two years old, Merricat, then twelve, and their Uncle Julian. Constance, who’d prepared the meal that day, and took care to wash out the sugar bowl before police arrived, was accused of the poisonings, tried, and acquitted for lack of sufficient evidence; Merricat was sent away for the duration of the trial, then brought back to live with Constance and her uncle in their diminished household. (Julian, who has never recovered from the trauma of arsenic poisoning, persists in believing that Merricat died in the “orphanage”—despite the fact that he and his niece inhabit the same house.) Merricat’s uncle is preoccupied with writing up his account of the poisonings:

In some ways, a piece of extraordinarily good fortune for me. I am a survivor of the most sensational poisoning case of the century. I have all the newspaper clippings. I knew the victims, the accused, intimately, as only a relative living in the very house could know them. I have exhaustive notes on all that happened. I have never been well since.

Why no one seems to suspect—as the reader does, immediately—that the unstable Merricat, not the amiable Constance, is the poisoner is one of the curiosities of the novel, as it’s a mystery why Constance is so indulgent of Merricat, who contributes nothing to the household. Certainly there’s little subterfuge in Merricat’s teasing of others, in alluding to various kinds of poisons; her tormenting of her cousin Charles contains a transparent threat:

The Amanita phalloides,” I said to [Charles], “holds three different poisons. There is amanitin, which works slowly and is most potent. There is phalloidin, which acts at once, and there is phallin, which dissolves red corpuscles…. The symptoms begin with violent stomach pains, cold sweat, vomiting…. Death occurs between five and ten days after eating.”

Constance’s mild reproach: “Silly Merricat.”

In much of Shirley Jackson’s fiction, food is fetishized to an extraordinary degree; ironic then, that the Blackwood family should be poisoned by one of their own, out of a family-heirloom sugar bowl. That the food fetish has its erotic component is suggested by the means of poison—Amanita phalloides—and by the way Merricat so totally depends upon her older sister as a food provider, as if she were an unweaned infant and not a “great child” grown into an adult. Sexual attraction per se is virtually nonexistent in Jackson’s fiction: the single sexual episode in all of her work appears to be a molestation of some kind, short of rape, that occurs in an early scene of Hangsaman—“Oh my dear God sweet Christ, Natalie thought, so sickened she nearly said it aloud, is he going to touch me?”—but the episode isn’t described, and is never acknowledged by the afflicted young woman, who gradually succumbs to schizophrenia.

Nowhere in Jackson’s work is food more elaborately fetishized than in We Have Always Lived in the Castle, in which Merricat, Constance, and Uncle Julian have virtually nothing to do but inhabit their blighted house and “eat the year away” in meals that the older sister prepares for them, three times a day, like clockwork, as in a Gothic parody of the comical self-portraits Shirley Jackson created for the women’s magazine market in the 1950s. In such best-selling books as Life Among the Savages (1953) and Raising Demons (1956), a housewife-mother’s frustrations are transformed by a deft twist of the wrist into, not a grim account of disintegration and madness, still less the poisoning of her family, but light-hearted comedy. (It’s ironic to note that Shirley Jackson died at the age of forty-eight, shortly after the publication of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, of amphetamine addiction, alcoholism, and morbid obesity; negligent of her health for years, she is said to have spoken openly of not expecting to live to be fifty, and in the final months of her life suffered from agoraphobia so extreme she couldn’t leave her squalid bedroom—as if in mimicry of the agoraphobic sisters of We Have Always Lived in the Castle.)

As Merricat has uneasily sensed, “change” is imminent, and will bring with it the invasion of the Blackwood household. Without having been invited, the sisters’ boorish cousin Charles arrives, intent upon stealing their deceased father’s money, which he believes to be in a safe; he dares to take Mr. Blackwood’s position at the head of the dining room table—“He even looks like father,” Constance says. Unwisely Charles threatens his young cousin Merricat: “I haven’t quite decided what I’m going to do with you…. But whatever I do, you’ll remember it.”

It’s a measure of Constance’s desperation that though Charles is not a very attractive man, she appears drawn to him, as a way into a possible new life, a prospect terrifying to Merricat. Yet the slightest wish on Constance’s part for something other than her stultifying robot-existence causes Merricat to react threateningly, for the sisters’ secret is the intimate bond between them that sets them apart from all of the world. Throughout the novel there is the prevailing threat of the murderous Merricat, whose fantasy life is obsessed with rituals of power, dominance, and revenge: “Bow your heads to our beloved Mary Katherine…or you will be dead.”

The hideous arsenic deaths constitute the secret heart of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, as unspecified sexual acts appear to be at the heart of The Turn of the Screw: the taboo yet irresistible subject upon which all thinking, all speech, all actions turn. The sisters are linked forever by the deaths of their family, as in a quasi-spiritual-incestuous bond by which each holds the other in thrall. Food shopping (by Merricat), food preparation (by Constance), and food consumption (by both) are the sacred or erotic rituals that bind them, even after the house has been partly demolished by fire and they are living in its ruins:

It is a very happy place, though.” Constance was bringing breakfast to the table: scrambled eggs and toasted biscuits and blackberry jam she had made some golden summer. “We ought to bring in as much food as we can,” she said….

I will go on my winged horse and bring you cinnamon and thyme, emeralds and clove, cloth of gold and cabbages.”

Witchcraft is a primitive attempt at science; an attempt to assert power by the powerless. Traditionally witchcraft, like voodoo and spiritualism, has been the province of marginal individuals of whom most are women and girls. In Shirley Jackson’s novel of multiple personalities, The Bird’s Nest, the afflicted young heroine’s psychiatrist—aptly named Dr. Wright—tries to explicate the bizarre psychic phenomena he has been trying to “cure”:

Each life, I think…asks the devouring of other lives for its own continuance; the radical aspect of ritual sacrifice, the performance of a group, its great step ahead, was in organization; sharing the victim was so eminently practical….

The doctor spoke slowly, in a measured voice…: “The human creature at odds with its environment…must change either its own protective coloration, or the shape of the world in which it lives. Equipped with no magic device beyond…intelligence…the human creature finds it tempting to endeavor to control its surroundings through manipulated symbols of sorcery, arbitrarily chosen, and frequently ineffectual.”

Shirley Jackson is rarely so explicit in her thematic intentions: it’s as if her literary critic/English professor husband Stanley Edgar Hyman were lecturing to her, in a manner that sounds like mild self-parody even as it helps to illuminate both the tangled Bird’s Nest and the ruined Castle.

After Merricat sets a fire in the Blackwood house in the hope of expelling her detested cousin Charles, the yet more detested villagers swarm onto the private property. Some are firemen who seem sincere in their efforts to put out the fire but most want to see the Blackwood house destroyed: “Why not let it burn?… Let it burn!” The jeering rhyme is heard again:

Merricat, said Constance, would you like a cup of tea?”
“Merricat, said Constance, would you like to go to sleep?”
“Oh, no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.”

Radical change has swept upon the Blackwoods through the agency of Merricat, ironically. The fire she sets causes the death of Uncle Julian; the sisters are forced to flee into the woods; villagers enter the private residence and vandalize it. Yet when the sisters return, in a tenderly elegiac scene, they discover that though most of the rooms are uninhabitable, all they require—a kitchen, primarily, where Constance can continue to prepare meals for Merricat—has been left intact. As if by magic the old house has been transformed: “Our house was a castle, turreted and open to the sky.” Against all expectations the Blackwood sisters are happy in their private paradise “on the moon.”

I love you, Constance,” I said.

And I love you, my Merricat.”

Constance has succumbed to Merricat entirely: the “good” sister has yielded to the “evil” sister. Constance even berates herself for being “wicked”—“I should never have reminded you of why they all died”—in this way acknowledging her complicity in the deaths. Now we understand why Constance never accused Merricat of the poisonings or made any attempt to defend herself against accusations that she was the murderer, for in her heart, she was and is the Blackwoods’ murderer, and not Merricat; that is, not only Merricat. Her acknowledgment tacitly guarantees the sisters’ permanent expulsion from the world of normal people—a world in which the psychologically damaged Merricat could not survive.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle ends on an unexpectedly idyllic note, like a fairy-tale romance in which lovers have found each other and even the villagers, repentant of their cruelty, pay the Blackwood sisters homage by bringing food offerings to them, left at the ruins of their doorstep:

Sometimes they brought bacon, home-cured, or fruit, or their own preserves…. Mostly they brought roasted chicken; sometimes a cake or a pie, frequently cookies, sometimes a potato salad or coleslaw…. Sometimes there were pots of baked beans or macaroni.

Here is the very Eros of food, an astonishing wish-fulfillment fantasy in which the agoraphobic is not pitied but revered, idolized; the destruction of her house isn’t death to her, but a new life protected by magic: “My new magical safeguards were the lock on the front door, and the boards over the windows, and the barricades along the sides of the house.” Repeatedly as in a rapture Merricat cries, “Oh, Constance, we are so happy.” The sisters’ jokes are slyly food-oriented, of course:

I wonder if I could eat a child if I had the chance.”

I doubt if I could cook one,” said Constance.

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