Two books, very unalike, and yet sharing one general darkness. Death, spoken and unspoken, biogenic and anthropogenic. Non-fiction, and fiction.
Come sit and have tea with me, won’t you? The sugar’s right there.
Death in Yellowstone is a collection of exactly what it says on the title. (It’s also, for those keeping score at home, a slight break in my “read everyone except cis het white males (excepting Jim Hines) in 2019” — as far as I know, the author falls in those categories. But I started it in 2018 and it’s been my bathroom reader.) Whittlesey’s tone occasionally drifts from gossipy to scientific, but for the most part is consistent and easy reading for all the horrors of his topic. The book opens with deaths by hot springs (tip: the bluer the water the hotter, but do yourself a favor and just stay out all together), and there are fewer of those than you’d think, and ends with deaths by plane and automobile. It’s morbid, yes, and some of the tales are enough to turn the stomach, but it’s also a fascinating reminder that it’s worth getting out into nature only if you remember that nature is utterly indifferent to your living or dying.
Beautiful, yes. But horrifying and sad, too.
Nature is not kind. Man is not technically an apex predator (we’re up there, but we’re by no means it). And some of the most awful things that happen, we do to ourselves.
We have Always Lived in the Castle is frequently called Shirley Jackson’s masterwork but I’m not sure I agree with that; I rather preferred Hill House. In part, I think, this is because the narrator of Castle, Merricat, is a little too unreliable for me.
Merricat (Mary Catherine) Blackwood lives with her sister Constance and her Uncle Julian in the house where, the town below assumes, Constance murdered her parents, her brother, and her aunt at supper one night. Merricat is the only one who ever leaves the house; when the story opens she is doing their weekly grocery shopping in a town she describes as “dingy” and “grimy” and “gray.” She hates all the people within, because they torment her and don’t help her family and there’s a rhyme about what Constance supposedly did. Constance was acquitted, and Julian has a weak heart, and they’re all doing just fine until Cousin Charles arrives and brings the outside world into the house.
Merricat hates him.
The writing is just as clever and intense as the writing I’d expect from the author of Hill House but I think this one doesn’t work quite as well. Merricat is a strange creature all made of whims and rules and it is entirely unclear just exactly how old she is (though we do learn Constance is in her late 20s when Cousin Charles, 32, arrives), but in many ways she feels like an adolescent. It is impossible to say with any certainty how much of what Merricat describes is real, and how much is her imagination or her mind embellishing what happened to keep her in the right with what she’s done and where she and Constance end up.
I’ll probably give this one a couple of years, and then read it again.
And I really hope the upcoming movie doesn’t change the ending, even though I thought the book took a little too long to get there.