We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
(listened to audiobook on cd borrowed from my local library)
Everyone knows Shirley Jackson. She of the most famous lesson on irony we all became acquainted with in high school, The Lottery. Most people go on and read the rest of her spooky, gothic stories. I didn't and can not account for why. But, I changed all of that recently. While wandering the audio book shelves at the library, I found this and scooped it up.
What a bizarre and atmospheric story. Our narrator,18 year old, clearly not all there/all right, Mary Katherine Blackwood, tells us of her family's lands, the strained (to say the least) relationship that the family always had with the villagers. Of course, after half of her family was poisoned, leaving just Merricat and her older sister Constance unharmed, and nearly killing her now very feeble and sickly Uncle Julian, matters got decidedly worse.
Between the pranks and open hostility of the townspeople and the strange closed off life the remaining Blackwells lead, we grow to understand that Merricat has a whole heap of problems. She's very childlike, believing in charms and superstititions, and fearing any kind of change. She has magic words and buries things on the property to protect her remaining family. She is the only one who leaves the grounds now, on her weekly forays into the village to buy the groceries and visit the library. When she is not snubbed completely, she is taunted by adults and children alike.
Jackson unfolds the story slowly, letting you see the dysfunctional family that remains as she hints at what happened that fateful night. But, for the remaining Blackwoods, there are many fateful nights. They live in a home where they keep as much undisturbed as possible. They avoid contact with the outside world, even hoping that the few remaining friends they have will cease to keep turning up.
When a poor relation shows up on their doorstep, taking especial interest in their finances and insinuating himself into their lives, the creepiness factor gets upped exponentially. Uncle Julian's outbursts and confusion and Merricat's strange ways, fuel cousin Charles' rage as he whispers quietly to the lonely and vilified Constance, trying to win the loveless girl over at the expense of the only people who care for her and that she cares for.
Yes, this story seems to get off to a slow start, but just because there is very little action, Jackson is laying the groundwork for all that follows. Once Charles arrives, the pace quickens dramatically, leaving the reader racing to keep up and confirming what he/she has been suspecting, yet dreading to be true, all along. Or, that could just be me. I pretty much ruin every mystery I read by figuring out the "whodunnits" at the outset. There's more here than just figuring out what really happened the night so many of the Blackwoods died, but how long can the survivors keep going as they have, with all they've been through and all that's been left to therm.