Shirley Jackson was no stranger to angry villagers. As Jonathan Lethem has noted, “the motif of small-town New England persecution” runs through Jackson’s fiction, filtered from personal experience: “It was [Jackson’s] fate, as an eccentric newcomer in a staid insular village [North Bennington, Vermont], to absorb the reflexive anti-Semitism and anti-intellectualism felt by the townspeople toward the college” [where Jackson’s Jewish husband worked as a professor]. Life in North Bennington would lead Jackson to draw up the classic story “The Lottery” (which I covered in a Mob Scene post last year). The author’s most extensive depiction of angry villagers, though, occurs in her novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle (whose long-overdue film adaptation arrived in theaters and on demand last week).
In the novel, Jackson’s Blackwoods (the narrating Merricat; Constance; Uncle Julian) live isolated in their fenced-off family home, ostracized by the community. They are the object of scorn, the subject of a dark nursery rhyme that is often tauntingly chanted at them. Some of the hostility stems from class resentment, of a wealthy family perceived to set itself above and beyond the common folk. No small part, though, is played by fear, for dark scandal haunts the Blackwood name: six years earlier, most of the family was killed off, and Constance accused (but found innocent in court, at least) of poisoning them at dinnertime by lacing the sugar bowl with arsenic. Six years later, the Blackwood home is a largely shunned place, and the survivors inside treated like witches by the lore-building locals.
The burning resentment and dread of the Blackwoods flares out of control when Merricat sets fire to the home (in the attempt to cleanse the place of her intrusive, duplicitous cousin Charles, a true American Gothic hero-villain). Along with the fireman battling the conflagration, the villagers arrive at the scene, but act less like concerned onlookers than joyous witnesses of an auto-da-fe. “Let it burn!” the uncaring refrain resounds outside the blazing walls. In a shocking twist, the flames are brought under control, but the crowd goes berserk after the fire chief turns around and throws a rock through one of the tall windows of the home. The act inaugurates an orgy of destruction: looting, vandalizing villagers promptly wash over the home like a “wave.” One of the more respectable townspeople denounces the rioters as “crazy drunken fools,” but intemperance isn’t an adequate explanation for such a transgressive outburst. Long-held inimical feelings have flooded to the surface, resulting in a deluge of unneighborly behavior.
As dramatized in the film, this mob scene is even more stunning. The Blackwood home is torn apart by a pack of wild men and women, its furnishings strewn across the lawn like viscera. The mob’s persecution of the Blackwoods is made even more poignant by Merricat’s voiceover: “The sound of their hate is another kind of fire moving through the bones of our house. I know now that all of my [protective] spells are broken. What was buried here in this village, their want for our ruin, has come to the surface at last.” There’s one salient difference between the book and film versions of the scene. In Jackson’s novel, the villagers are wary of actually touching Constance or Merricat, but in the film the pair of sisters are roughly manhandled. A lynching seems very well in the making, until the crowd is cowed by the announcement that Uncle Julian is dead inside the house.
Further outrage against the Blackwoods is thus avoided, but plenty of damage has occurred. The alleged high-and-mighty have been brought low, their denigrated den of eccentricity devastated. The shock troop of American Gothic, the angry mob, has reduced the Blackwood home to a Gothic ruin: “Our house,” Merricat narrates in the novel, “was a castle, turreted and open to the sky.” Ironically, this violent transformation really hasn’t changed much, only obviated the circumstances of the Blackwoods’ existence all along (as also signaled by Jackson’s book title). The House of Blackwood has fallen into decrepitude, and the weird sisters now shuttered up inside are shuttered at all the more. “We fixed things up nice for you girls, just like you always wanted it,” the mocking villagers proclaim during the sacking of the manse, but Merricat and Constance were fixed in their situation of ugly Othering long before their unfortunate fort was stormed.