My Three Favourite… Scary Sisters

28th Oct 2011

As children, my sister and I would sometimes sit in a dark room and attempt to terrify each other into turning the light on. A certain calibre of brooding silence would indicate that one sister was staring at the other in the dark, plotting to kill them.

We had lots of nice, well-lit games as well, but there was something particularly compelling about a round of ‘your sister is a psychopath and she just pulled out a knife.’

Only one of the stories in this round-up features a sister with murderous intentions towards her sibling, but they all deal with the compulsive and terrifying prospect that your own sibling is evil.

My top three scary sisters include the mindless, childlike tyranny of Beloved, the smothering love of Merricat and the creeping, introspective delusions of Ginny.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved is a child killed by her own mother in attempt to save her from a life of slavery, and she is as much the victim as the perpetrator in Toni Morrison’s unrelenting novel of the same name.

The story opens with Sethe and her surviving daughter Denver living with the malicious spirit of the baby who was Beloved. Things are hurled around the house, Denver has retreated into her own world and Sethe is surrounded by memories of her escape from slavery.

The oppressive nature of this ghost infuses the narrative and when a child-like woman called Beloved appears with the mentality of a toddler, it is genuinely chilling. Beloved’s mindlessness is what renders her so compelling and terrifying; as Sethe seeks her forgiveness it becomes clear that Beloved’s desires will eventually destroy them all.

Just as Sethe’s neighbours can only see her crime, and not the horrendous alternative, Beloved is only concerned with her own needs; her anger, her hunger and her lust. Although these desires lead indirectly to the liberation of Denver, they also drain the life away from Sethe.

The horror of this self-perpetuating cycle of remorse and need is manifest when Denver realises Beloved has effectively condemned their mother to a life of slavery.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

“Merricat”, said Connie, “Would you like a cup of tea?” “Oh no,” said Merricat, “You’ll poison me!”

Merricat, the narrator, and Constance live with their Uncle Julian in the Blackwood family home, a declining mansion on the outskirts of a village. The first chapter is a fantastic example of creeping unease; why do the girls live alone? Where is the rest of their family? Why do the villagers hate and fear them? Well because Constance killed them all of course!

The blasé attitude of Merricat to her older sister’s crimes is coupled with the obsessive adoration all big sisters hope to inspire (ahem). As the novel continues, however, Constance appears to be a rather vacant and innocent creature; in stark contrast to Merricat and her rage-fuelled rituals. Jackson expertly sows seeds of doubt in the readers mind, as to the reliability of her narrator, and the sense of dread grows.

Constance’s passivity begins to look increasingly like fear and we, the readers, are trapped inside Merricat’s head. All her rituals and anger at the outside world have a warped logic and Jackson perfectly manipulates this claustrophobic atmosphere.

Described as “a paean to agoraphobia” by Jackson’s biographer Judy Opphenheimer, We Have Always Lived in the Castle becomes even more sinister when the author’s circumstances are considered.

Morbidly obese, addicted to amphetamines and agoraphobic, Jackson ended her life in horrendous circumstances and yet transformed them into an off-kilter heaven on earth for Merricat and Constance.

The Behaviour of Moths by Poppy Adams

The Behaviour of Moths presents yet another unbalanced sisterhood but Adams moves past any suggestion of emulation and instead pays discreet homage to both Toni Morrison and Shirley Jackson.

Many of the familiar scary-sister elements are in place; a creepy, claustrophobic house, an uneven distribution of power between the sisters and an unreliable narrator. Adams, however, presents the reader with two aged sisters, nearing the end of their lives; and nothing is scarier than murderous old ladies.

Ginny has lived in the family home all her life, continuing her father’s twisted experiments on moths in a way highly reminiscent of Merricat’s rituals. The difference between the two characters, however, is that while Merricat was protective of Constance, Ginny is furiously afraid of her little sister. When Vivien returns home she and Ginny, both in their sixties, settle into an uneasy co-existence, each attempting to maintain their own troubling secrets.

The mistakes Ginny makes with her experiments (moth soup is seems especially ill-conceived) adds to the readers awareness of her fragile and unreliable state of mind.

As Vivien encroaches further and further into Ginny’s world, her desire to avoid the outside world transforms into an aggressive reclaiming of her life. In the tradition of all scary sisters this has terrifying consequences for poor Vivien.

These three novels chart the growth of a scary sister; from terrible ghost-toddler, to brooding young woman to terrified and terrifying old lady. There’s clearly a rich literary tradition surrounding scary sisters – can you think of any I’ve missed out?

(Image via J. Scott 2)


  • Jess says:

    I’ve just finished The Distant Hours by Kate Morton, scarier sisters you couldn’t have hoped for!

  • Alex Herod says:

    I haven’t read any of these books. And now I want to read all 3 – perfect recommendations for when the dark comes earlier and Halloween is looming, thanks!

  • I just read The Behaviour of Moths and loved it! Beautifully narrated and the moth stuff was strangely interesting!