New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1991, c1962.
This is one I just had to read, especially at this time of year. It's a spooky and wonderful story -- a tale of two sisters in a relationship that is first just a bit off... then a lot off.
Sisters Mary Katherine (Merricat) and Constance Blackwood live in a big old house on the outskirts of a small, Steven-King-like village of hostile inhabitants. The residents don't like Constance, or Merricat for that matter -- there's a rhyme that the children repeat:
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!
This kind of taunting and hostility comes from fear of these Blackwood sisters: six years previously, the rest of the Blackwood family was murdered, with arsenic in the sugar bowl. Constance was charged with the crime, but not convicted, for lack of evidence. This hasn't stopped anyone from believing her guilty, however. The only two who escaped death were Merricat, 12 at the time, who had been sent to bed without supper (again), and Uncle Julian, who was disabled but not killed by the poisoning. He still lives with Constance and Merricat in the old Blackwood home.
Into this fragile balance comes Cousin Charles, who is convinced that there is a fortune to be had in the house. His cruel streak and his smarmy courting of Constance, trying to turn her against Uncle Julian and Merricat, both made me feel as if he was the true evil in this story. He is one nasty piece of work. But Merricat responds with equal vehemence to his behaviour.
This is a classic of New England gothic fiction. It is creepy, with mysteries and strangenesses embedded in the story. There are frightening outsiders, and violence. But it also has strong relationships and sisterly love, and an original vision, mostly based on Merricat's narration.
I won't say too much about it, since reading it "fresh" is its own pleasure. I enjoyed this one -- it's short, and I read it all in one swoop during the recent Readathon. Reading it all at once it recommended; you can sink into this strange story and really get the feel for the characters and the ominous setting. Jackson had a particular ability to write stories like this, which are Gothic yet also maintain a sense of reality and of lightness.
While I still prefer The Haunting of Hill House just a little bit more, I am glad I've also read this novel now, and one or the other would always be a great choice at this time of the year.
The Sister by Poppy Adams (published as The Behaviour of Moths in the UK) is similarly set in a creaky old family home, and features the relationship between two (older) sisters. The facts of the story only come together slowly, and so there's as much uncertainty about the true story of their past as there is in Jackson's story.
Ki Longfellow's Houdini Heart is a spooky, chilling read with a narrator whose edge of madness colours her perceptions... She tells her story from her current vantage point, alone in a room in an aging Vermont hotel, slowly filling in the truths of her tragic past. The reader will not want to put this book down until they figure out just what the heck is going on.