I have been reading Shirley Jackson lately, enjoying her cadenced prose that with simple words gives immediate insight into the minds of her characters, her ability to create an atmosphere of fear and isolation, and her mastery of psychological horror in the tradition of Poe. I've just finished reading We Have Always Lived in the Castle, the final novel she wrote before her death.
The narrator of the novel is Mary Katherine Blackwood, known as Merricat, and as usual Jackson opens her story with the shock of incongruity as we are drawn into the bizarre world of the Blackwoods:
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.... I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance ... and the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.
Merricat lives with her sister and her uncle Julian in the huge Blackwood house previously inhabited by her mother and father, brother, and aunt as well. We learn that these members of her family have all been poisoned; Uncle Julian is the only survivor of the poisoning but he is wheelchair-bound and in the depths of dementia. Merricat had been sent to her room for bad behaviour so she was not present at the fatal meal, and Constance did not use the sugar that contained the poison. Constance was arrested for the murders, but subsequently acquitted.
Constance never leaves the house other than to go to the garden, and it is Merricat who must make the twice-weekly trips to town and endure the stares and taunts of the townspeople, who are both fearful and jealous of the remaining Blackwoods and their grand estate. The townspeople become active aggressors later in the novel: during a fire, they loot and destroy almost everything in the house and threaten the lives of the Blackwood girls. The themes of cruelty lurking below the surface of "normal" people and the dangers of mob mentality are strong here, reminiscent of "The Lottery".
I don't want to give away any further details of the story because it is an amazing one. If you enjoy psychological horror, this book is for you.