It begins with a ritual.
Mary Katherine Blackwood (Merricat) buries a box of gold coins in the grounds of a large house on the outskirts of a village in Vermont. Here, as throughout the story, she explains herself to Jonas, her cat. She senses an imminent threat to her family and this ritual is a “device” to protect them.
She speaks her sacred words: Melody, Gloucester, Pegasus.
The ritual completed, Merricat heads to the village. She remembers the village in its prime, with grand families living in great houses. When she reaches Main Street, the nostalgic grandeur is replaced by the contemporary truth: villagers muttering about her behind her back as she buys groceries, borrows library books. Her family is clearly under a cloud, but at first we don’t know exactly why. Merricat takes refuge from their hostility in another fantasy: she has a house on the moon that she flies to on a winged horse. One day “we” (we don’t, as yet, know who “we” are) will live there forever, she says. But again the outside world breaks in on her fantasy, as the villagers chant a cruel and sinister rhyme:
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!
It follows her all the way back…
Merricat is met by her sister, Constance. Perhaps after the villagers’ chanting, we’re anticipating a sinister character, but Constance is frail – like a fairy princess, Merricat thinks. Constance says she is feeling stronger, and may one day soon join Merricat in her trips to the village. Merricat doesn’t like the idea and changes the subject: their acquaintance Helen Clarke is coming to tea and they must get ready. Their Uncle Julian appears in his wheelchair. As the women prepare for their visitors, Julian talks about the book that he is writing about the events of “that night”. His rambling gives us more clues about what happened. Uncle Julian goes to change, and the women welcome their visitors.
Helen arrives with a friend – Lucille Wright. Lucille is clearly curious about the notorious events that took place at the house but is concealing it behind a show of politeness. Helen urges Constance to return to society – she has “done her penance”. Merricat clearly doesn’t like any of this talk of Constance returning to society. She goes next door and smashes the milk jug. When she comes back, Helen is saying “… and what are you going to do with Mary Katherine?” The moment Merricat appears, Helen smiles at her and changes the subject. She thinks Constance should gently re-enter society, perhaps by hosting a luncheon at the house. “People would be afraid to visit here,” says Merricat. “People of our kind don’t believe silly gossip,” replies Helen. Mischievously, Merricat offers Lucille a cup of tea. Lucille takes it, that show of politeness again, but it rattles in its saucer as her hand shakes. “Sugar?” asks Merricat. Lucille declines but Helen insists on taking a number of sandwiches: demonstrating her trust Constance, who made them. We haven’t explicitly said what happened at the house, but it’s pretty clear by now.
Uncle Julian enters, now wearing a jaunty tie. He has overheard what the ladies have been saying. Of course no one would be scared to visit here – Constance was acquitted of the murders. And so the cat is out of the bag.
Helen thinks Julian’s remark is in poor taste but Lucille is clearly fascinated and she can’t stop herself asking Julian what he remembers.
Julian takes Lucille into the dining room where it all happened and, as he narrates the events of the night, we see the ghostly figures take their seats. Julian’s brother John at the head of the table, his wife, their son Thomas and daughter Constance, Julian and his wife – and there is an empty place. Merricat was sent to bed without any supper. The meal concludes with blackberries from the garden Constance tended. “We relied upon Constance for various delicacies,” says Julian. “I am of course not referring to arsenic.” Everyone but Constance sprinkles sugar on their blackberries. Julian doesn’t have much. That is why he survived; the sugar was laced with arsenic. Julian points out that, if Constance had wanted to poison them, her botanical knowledge would have furnished her with far cleverer ways of doing so. Lilian asks why Constance’s mother didn’t do the cooking. “You never tasted my sister-in-law’s cooking,” says Julian. “I personally preferred to chance the arsenic.”
Helen tries to extricate Lucille from the conversation and reassert “good taste” but to no avail. Lucille is ghoulishly interested and isn’t going to stop her questions. Julian continues with other details of the night that incriminate Constance: she bought the arsenic (“to kill rats”), she cooked the dinner and she washed the sugar bowl before the police arrived. She also told the police that “Those people deserved to die” and that it was all her fault.
“But she doesn’t look like a homicidal maniac,” says Lucille.
Helen’s had enough. She’s leaving. Lucille at last realises how much she’s overstepped the bounds of good taste. She and Helen leave and Merricat and Constance laugh about them. But the evening has been a strain on Uncle Julian. He asks “How was I?” and then wonders if the events he’s just described really happened. Constance tells him they did, and promises to show him all the newspaper clippings he’s collected about the events.
Merricat asks Constance if she’s going to do what Helen suggested (return to society). Constance says she doesn’t know.
But, for a time at least, Constance tells Jonas everything will remain as it should be.
Constance talks us through the routine that they have established.
On Monday, they neaten the house.
On Tuesday, Constance goes to the village.
On Wednesday, they do the laundry.
On Thursday, her most powerful day, Merricat goes up into the attic and dresses in their dead parents’ clothes.
On Friday, the doctor comes to check on Julian.
“That Night” II
Uncle Julian dozes, makes notes for his book, remembers moment of that fateful day – and once again we see its events played out: the last time his wife ate breakfast; Thomas being told off for climbing in a tree.
“When I’m as old as Uncle Julian, will you take care of me?” asks Merricat.
“If I live that long,” replies Constance. And the suggestion, once again, that this routine will not last forever drives Merricat out to check on the supernatural safeguards she has placed around the house. The buried doll is where it should be, the coins also, but when she reaches the tree with a book nailed to it, the book falls down.
Charles has arrived in the village.
It rains. Merricat runs back to the house. She needs reassurance. “We’ll always be together, won’t we?” But Constance says, “Don’t you ever want to leave?” “The world is full of terrible people,” Merricat replies.
There is a knock at the door. Someone is asking to be let in. Like a vampire, Merricat thinks, he has to be invited in or he cannot cross the threshold. Constance shivers. Merricat goes to get her a sweater and when she returns, Charles is sitting in Merricat’s chair.
Merricat runs out of the house, using all her magic – including her sacred magic words – to wish Charles away.
When Merricat returns the next morning, she is confident her magic has worked and Charles does not exist. Constance points out the sound of his footsteps, from their father’s bedroom overhead. Then he must be a ghost, says Merricat. Constance is trying to persuade Merricat that Charles has come to stay when Charles enters, pushing Uncle Julian in his wheelchair.
Charles is very charming, explaining that he is their penniless cousin who was forbidden to see them by his father, but now his father is dead, he is eager to reconnect. He offers to work on the house, help out. When Merricat tests him by offering him a pancake Constance has cooked, he eats it – he even talks to Jonas.
Charles offers to go to the village for them. When he’s gone, only Merricat is not won over. She smashes a glass.
Merricat tries to resume their routine but things are different now. They can’t neaten the house as they used to because Charles is in their father’s room. Merricat emphasises her bond with Constance: carrying their two brooms, Merricat thinks they look like a pair of witches.
Merricat keeps wishing Charles away but Constance wants her to stop. She asks Merricat to sit with him at dinner that night and Merricat agrees. Constance will wear their mother’s pearls, and Charles will sit in their father’s chair.
At dinner, Charles is disgusted by Uncle Julian’s table manners. Julian thinks Charles is John, his brother, and talks to him about investments. When Julian starts to reminisce about the night of the murders, Charles rebukes him.
Charles says he’s going into the village to get some tobacco for his pipe. He offers to do the shopping for them while he’s there. That’s Merricat’s job and she resents him taking it.
Constance tells Charles she will give him the money; they keep money in their father’s safe. Charles doesn’t think keeping money in the house is a good idea.
When Charles says he’s taken Merricat’s job, and Merricat will have to find another, Merricat tells him about the poisonous effects of the death cap mushroom.
Constance tells her she’s not being nice, so Merricat simply asks Charles if he’ll please go away.
Charles gets angry, saying he isn’t going anywhere, and asking how a valuable gold watch and chain ended up nailed to a tree. He appeals to Constance – can’t she see how crazy this all is?
Constance storms out. Merricat follows her, thinking she’s taken her side. Instead, Constance says that she hadn’t realised how out of control Merricat had gotten. Uncle Julian will have to go into a hospital where they can look after him properly. Charles will look through their father’s papers. Constance says she’s realised that she’s been hiding here all this time. She wants to be normal. She and Charles have plans to make. Everything has to change.
Thursday. Merricat’s most powerful day. Charles goes down to the village and while he is away, Merricat – in another ritual – breaks the gold watch and fills his bedroom with leaves and twigs from the grounds, chanting spells as she does so. At last, she pours water over the bed so that no demon-ghost (Charles) can ever sleep there again.
Charles returns in fury. He’s found the box of gold coins Merricat has buried.
Constance makes excuses for her but Charles says that the coins were worth $20-30! And they were not hers to bury!
Merricat says the hole he has dug them from will be just big enough for his head.
Charles goes up to his room and returns almost at once. He confronts Merricat about the damage she’s done there. Julian enters and tells him not to get involved, but Charles dismisses him.
Constance tries to make peace. She says she will tidy the room but Charles will not be mollified. Julian keeps calling him John and he tells him he’s not his dead brother. Julian tells him to be quiet and Charles says only once he’s finished with Mary Katherine.
Julian tells him Mary Katherine died in an orphanage during her sister’s trial. Charles points at Merricat: she’s right there. Julian tells Charles he can’t stay any longer.
Charles is perplexed. Isn’t Constance going to punish Merricat?
“You mean send me to bed without any supper?” says Merricat and she runs away.
“That Night” III
And once again the events of the fatal night are replayed. Only now it is before the meal, and Merricat is being sent to bed without any supper.
She reaches for the sugar bowl.
Constance calls her name.
Once again, we see figures take their seats for dinner, as when we saw the ghostly re-enactment of the fatal night. Only now it is Charles who sits in John’s place, while Constance and Julian sit in their own. Merricat’s place is empty, as it was that night.
Merricat returns. Charles and Constance tell Merricat off when they see her. She has to go upstairs and clean herself up.
On her way, Merricat notices Charles’ unextinguished pipe glowing in one of the rooms. She drops it in a waste paper basket.
When she takes her place at the dinner table, Charles threatens her: they are going to have a good talk after dinner.
Merricat mentions deadly nightshade.
Julian cleans his plate and asks for more.
And then Charles smells smoke.
He runs out to find where the smell is coming from and sees the fire. He screams, tells Constance to take the money out of the safe and leave the house and he runs off to get help from the village.
Julian goes to gather his papers but Merricat is calm, “The fire is not hurrying so why should we?” She and Constance watch the fire spread through the house. “That room has no right to burn,” Constance says, “we neatened it just the other day.”
Villagers come bursting into the house – the same men who taunt Merricat every time she goes shopping, only now one of them wears a “Fire Chief” helmet.
They push the sisters out of the way and set to work, fighting the fire. Merricat takes Constance to hide in the grounds.
They watch as other villagers join the fight and Charles keeps shouting about getting the safe out of the house.
They think Julian will have escaped through the back door and that Jonas is also safe. Constance thinks the house will take a lot of cleaning now.
And then the call starts, from a woman in the crowd. “Why not let it burn?” The firemen demur, but the chant gathers strength among the crowd. “Let it burn! Let it burn!”
“Shoulda burned down long ago, and them in it.”
The fire chief tells them the fire is out, takes off his helmet, picks up a rock and throws it through one of the windows.
A wall of laughter rises behind him and others join in with the stoning.
The crowd runs inside and loots the house – Charles all the while asking for help with the safe.
The laughter continues and with it, the rhyme:
Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.
The mob are smashing everything they can find in the house. One child tries to eat one of Constance’s cookies and is smartly told off by its mother.
Helen Clarke and her husband Jim arrive and are outraged, “What the holy goddam devil is going on here?”
Merricat and Constance try to leave, but the mob finds them and torments them: “Put them back in the house and start the fire all over again.”
Merricat and Constance try to escape but at each turn they are stopped by the villagers.
Jim Clarke emerges from the house to announce that Julian is dead. Silence falls.
He says they should call an ambulance and it’s time for the villagers to leave.
Chastened, the villagers leave.
“Now we can go and live on the moon,” says Merricat and they set off into the night.
The sisters return to the house in daylight and pick through the ruins, putting enough fragments together to start a new life. They note that Charles didn’t manage to get the safe out: it lies, untouched by fire, on its side in the hallway.
They barricade themselves inside the house - with its fire-damaged upper floors looking like crenelations, it reminds Merricat of a castle. They will turn their backs on the rest of the world.
A new routine asserts itself. Children dare each other to enter the garden of the “haunted house” and Merricat wonders if she and her sister have become a ghost story.
She admits that it was she who put the arsenic in the sugar bowl that night.
Constance says she has always known as much.
One day, Charles returns with another man who turns out to be a reporter. He says he put flowers on Julian’s grave. He says he’s sorry and that he must talk to Constance one last time. At last he appeals to her about all that money. But there is no answer from inside the house. The reporter says it’s been a waste of time. Charles turns and leaves.
As they watch him go, Merricat and Constance laugh.
“I told you you would like it on the moon,” says Merricat.
Then a single villager approaches with a roast chicken in a pot. He says he’s sorry about the damage he did to the house on the night of the fire. He meant no harm and wants to be forgiven.
Slowly, more villagers come, with baskets of offerings for the unquiet spirits in the house.
And so it ends, as it began, with a ritual.