Cold Comfort Farm gone glitteringly obsidian
This is a chillingly wonderful short book, at one and the same time mordantly funny, satisfyingly weird, and quite disturbing
I was pointed in its direction by fellow reviewer, FictionFan (see her review), who thought it would touch my `like a well written something on the edge of ODD’ muscle. And she, in turn was lured to Jackson’s book by another blogger. lilbeetle’s review Double pingbacks!
Shirley Jackson was a gifted horror and things-that-go-bump-in-the-night writer whose first writing was published in 1949. By 1965 she was dead. It’s no surprise to find she had a slightly troubled personal history, probably involving issues around food.
Her books (and this is by all accounts typical) are set in small town America, and though the protagonists may be distinctly disturbing and oddball – uncomfortable misfits, it is also clear that Jackson has sympathies with her dysfunctional main characters, and sees small-town, insular, intolerant mentality as being as – if not more – reprehensible, than the fragile, disturbed, central character.
In We Have Always Lived in the Castle, the central characters are two sisters Constance, and the narrator, Mary Catherine – Merricat. Indeed, Merricat is particularly cat like, and her closest companion IS her cat Jonas. And at times, she is a particularly merry cat, in her playfulness, her whimsicality, her fey, wild child appreciation of nature. She reminded me of an indelibly darker, deeply disturbed cousin to Stella Gibbons‘ Cold Comfort Farm‘s Elfine – but Jackson’s novel has no Flora, creature of higher reason, to shed light into the darkness.
Constance, and Merricat live in dark and disturbing isolation on the edge of their community, shunned and feared by the village folk, and shunning and fearing of them, in return
Perhaps the best way of giving a flavour of Jackson’s deliciously oddball, creepy imagination, and her economy of writing, is the opening paragraph:
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-cap mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.
Our unreliable narrator Merricat with her strange rituals is clearly unhinged, quite seriously so – but Jackson’s skill and charm is to make this fragile, possibly deranged and even dangerous wild child also someone whom we sympathise with – and even, curiously, find immensely charming
The plot of the book involves the uncovering of a murder-fest which took place some years before, which Constance was accused and acquitted of, a weird uncle, a visiting cousin, some rubbernecking neighbours – and much more, which i will not say, for fear of spoilers. Even though it is the journey of the book which is its real delight, not any uncoverings. Savour every single step!
I must admit that the third sentence of the book, the werewolf one, hooked me immediately by the dark wit and unexpected imagination of the writer, so succinctly expressed, and turning on two phrases `with any luck at all’ and `’I have had to be content with what I had’
I have now ordered Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. Well, the nights are drawing in, and horror this stylish can’t be resisted!