Review: The Sundial, Shirley Jackson

Thank y’all for Shirley Jackson. Really. I mean it. I wouldn’t have read We Have Always Lived in the Castle or The Haunting of Hill House without your recommendation, and I like those books a lot. Shirley Jackson and her atmosphere-creating ways. The woman has a gift. When I was at the library the other day, getting books about British colonial encounters, I paused in the fiction section to check on the Shirley Jackson situation, and I was delighted to find that another of her novels was in, The Sundial.

The Sundial is about the Halloran family, three generations of which live in the Halloran manor house, where they have been responsible for the village below for many years. Lionel Halloran has just died, and his widow firmly maintains that he was pushed down the stairs to his death by his mother. The elder Mrs. Halloran takes no notice of these accusations, as she is planning the departure of all excess residents (including Lionel’s widow) from the Halloran home. However, just as she is preparing to implement this departure, her sister-in-law Fanny has a vision of an impending apocalypse from which, she claims, anyone living in the Halloran house will be spared. At first the group is incredulous, but they soon come to believe in Fanny’s visions, and they set about preparing to be the only survivors when the world is reborn.

Brrr, this book was hella creepy. It didn’t have quite the finished feel of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, or even of The Haunting of Hill House, but I enjoyed it tremendously. The Hallorans and their associates become chillingly cold-blooded about the impending destruction of the rest of the world, with the governess asking to include more people in their home, and Aunt Fanny insisting that they should limit themselves to a certain class of people. The elder Mrs. Halloran puts herself in charge of organizing reproduction in the reborn world, since their small coterie will be responsible for repopulating the planet. They order in supplies for survival, and destroy the books in the library in order to have enough space to store everything they will need. It’s a very Shirley Jackson idea of what humankind is like in extremity.

At the same time, all of Jackson’s not inconsiderable wit comes to the forefront, and the book can be very, very funny. Though the characters are, true to Jacksonian form, not quite human, their inhumanity is portrayed with a light, witty touch. The elder Mrs. Halloran insists on wearing a crown; the governess earnestly assures the villagers that she will miss them terribly; when seventeen-year-old Gloria has a vision of the future in which she is wearing blue shorts of a type she does not own, Julia helpfully offers to lend hers. There were so many parts of this book that cracked me up:

“Miss Ogilvie?” said Essex politely. “Miss Ogilvie as a child was violated by a band of Comanche Indians in a lonely farmhouse on Little Wicked Bend River. It has left her taciturn.”

“Good heavens!” Miss Deborah turned her head slightly to give Miss Ogilvie a quick, fleeting look. “I’ve known Miss Ogilvie for years,” Miss Deborah said, “and she never breathed a word…Poor Miss Ogilvie; if we had only known, my sister and I, perhaps we could have done something. Ah…comforted her, perhaps. Do you think I might mention it to her?”

“Under no circumstances,” said Essex with some haste. “I believe it would be extremely harmful, extremely. After all, the memory has been successfully buried for so long…”

It has left her taciturn. Oh, Shirley Jackson makes me smile. I wish she had written a dozen books.

I read this on Saturday, in transit to and from meeting up with Rachel of Book Snob. This was the first time I have ever actually met one of y’all, and I have to say, I am determined to meet the rest of you now. Rachel is fantastic and knows lots of things about museum lighting and quilts and preservation of tapestries. Moreover, when I observed that Shirley Jackson always writes about being trapped in houses and hating it there but somehow not wanting or not being able to leave, Rachel said “Yes! She always writes about houses!” and asked me to tell her when I returned The Sundial to the library. (Probably tomorrow or the next day.)

We went to the Morgan Library (and got in free, for real), which was very cool – I particularly liked the display of photographs from post-World-War-I France, where J.P. Morgan’s daughter Anne worked as a volunteer. We had delicious chicken pot pie for brunch, inspected expensive stuffed animals in FAO Schwartz and old luggage at a flea market somewhere between 58th and 12th, determined that we are exactly one day apart in age, and went down to the Strand. Rachel introduced me to the $1 bins and we discovered it’s no use at all asking book bloggers to decide for you what books to buy and what ones to leave. “You have to help me, Jenny,” said Rachel, and I helped by assuring her that since she was already going to be waiting in line to pay for the Willa Cather book, there was no point in putting back the Ford Maddox Ford as it was, after all, only a dollar. She helped me back by telling me that my book about the British civil service in India looked fascinating and getting two books for five dollars was not the sort of thing you should ever pass up.

(The difficulty is that if Rachel does buy the books, she’ll eventually review them, which means I have a motive for wanting her to have them. Even if I know that y’all should not be buying more books because of space/book ban/money troubles, I still want you to have more books. Secretly I am never in favor of your book-buying bans, even if I voice moral support for them. Sorry.)

Basically, I’m going to need all of y’all to go ahead and move up to New York now, so that we can have our Bloggers Eating Cheese Fries convention (BECF) and convince each other to buy dozens of books we don’t need. Also, please read The Sundial so I can come discuss the ending (and the beginning, actually) with you. Currently I seem to be the only person on the internet who has read it.

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61 thoughts on “Review: The Sundial, Shirley Jackson

  1. I lurved We Have Always Lived in the Castle but have yet to read anything else from the wonderful Ms. Jackson… I need to get on that, pronto. And I’m totally in for the BECF convention – just name your time and place! 🙂

    Sidenote: if you’re ever traveling to Florida, I’d love to meet up!

    • Oh, you should at least read The Haunting of Hill House. It’s brilliant. The Sundial isn’t quite as good but still worth a read.

      I have noted down your name for the BECF convention. When I am rich and have an enormous house IT WILL HAPPEN. I’d love to meet you too! 😀

    • Of course we have to meet up for BEA in May! I will be back from Rome (Rome! Rome! I’m going to Rome!) by then, and I totally want to go to BEA this year.

      It goes well! I found a place! I was having a moan to Rachel, who’s from London, about how far it is from the subway, and she laughed at me. She said if you’re fifteen minutes from the Tube in London you are blessed with untold joy. :p

  2. I am totally prepared to sign up for the BECF Convention. Although I propose it be called ABCDEFG: A Bloggers Convention Dedicated to Eating Fries Gooified. I agree that it should be held in May, in conjunction with the Book Bloggers Convention which will be after BEA. So we will have BEA, BBC, and ABCDEFG – the latter being alphabetically superior to all the rest of them!

  3. I have never read anything by Shriley Jackson, but We Have Always Lived in the Castle has, of course, been on my list for ages. I had not expected her to write creepy books, but I guess I should have known. At least I can always resort to finding out the spoilers before reading it..

    And I know how you feel about meeting bloggers. I recently met Zommie, and I had a great time. Even if I’m afraid she didn’t because I’m incredibly silent..

    And I loved your illustration of “helping” each other with the book shopping. I can imagine having lots of fun when shopping for books with a fellow book blogger. At the very least there is no need to feel ashamed for that kind of reasoning when you know the other loves books just as much as you do. (I always blush a bit when I get to the counter with a large pile of books).

    Also, we should start a non-book buying ban club. I recognize your feelings exactly! I guess that is why I have been wanting to buy Amy (from Amy Reads) a book in return for all the books she’s sending me, while she keeps saying that she owns enough of them..

    • Iris, don’t be silly, I’m sure she was thrilled to meet you. If you’re ever in New York (and I feel you should come – it is so nice they named it twice), we have to get together for drinks. 🙂

      I sensibly buy books in dribs and drabs, so I’m never buying masses of them at once. The one exception is this massive book fair that takes place at my old university every March. I’m heartbroken to be missing it this year – I always end up with at least fifty books, and they all cost between 50 cents and two or three dollars. IT IS GLORIOUS.

  4. Hehehehehe Jenny you are so funny! I had THE best time meeting you and can’t wait to do it again soon! We can sneak into another museum for free and eat more food and buy more books we don’t need. 🙂

    You have to text me when you return that Shirley to the library because I want to read it, now.

    • I’ve returned it now. You must try it!

      And don’t you go trying to make me buy more books! Where will I keep them all? How will I ever move into a new apartment when my lease on this one ends? You are a dangerous associate, woman.

  5. 1) I loved We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and I plan to reread The Haunting of Hill House next fall. She seems to be a brilliant author!

    2) I hope we get to meet some day!! 🙂

  6. LOL on the shopping with book bloggers. Frances and Thomas were the same when I shopped with them. And I really want to do a weekend in New York. I’ve only been once! It’s not all that far, and the bus to get there is so cheap.

    I haven’t read any Shirley Jackson besides “The Lottery” and her two memoirs about motherhood (Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons). Those two are hilarious. It’s interesting what you say about how she uses houses. I think I read somewhere that she actually had agoraphobia, so the hating it but feeling trapped thing would make sense.

    • That last part is SO INTERESTING. Turning your own pain into a metaphor…metaphor? Maybe I want “plot device”? Well, you know what I mean.

    • You should come! I would love to come and meet you, as long as you didn’t be a bad book-buying influence like Rachel. :p (I can’t promise I wouldn’t be a bad influence. Indeed I think it is inevitable that I would be.)

      I’ve read that about her agoraphobia too. I’m never sure if it’s true or not. I should really get a biography of her.

      I loved her books about motherhood! The story about when she’s trying to register – something, I don’t know, a car or her driving license? – and the woman won’t register her under her maiden name, and won’t put her profession as “writer” (“I’ll just put down housewife”) – that story is awesome and terrible.

  7. Ooh, I hadn’t heard of The Sundial Before. It sounds amazing, though. I love Shirley Jackson.

    And hooray for meeting book bloggers! I dearly, dearly wish there were some here, as I could do with some instant friends 😛 But! I’m meeting Jodie and Claire and Sakura soon, and I’m ridiculously excited about it 😀

    • That sounds so fun! You have to write about it once it’s happened. I was interrogating Rachel yesterday about the book bloggers she’s met, and what they’re all like in person. 😀

  8. Your book-blogging meet-up sounds awesome. I got a kick out of your description of your time at the Strand. A fellow book-blogger will always be an enabler in that kind of setting.

    • Dude, for serious. I thought she was going to be helpful because she said she didn’t want to buy too many books herself, but NOPE. I will remember this in future. :p

    • I know! They had loads of ARCs in there, which is nice because they’re not really supposed to sell them, but it means I get books I want for very very cheap. 😀

  9. Oh! I did not know Jackson had written more novels! My library has this one! But I can’t request it until I go pick up my holds, because of the stupid 20 hold limit. *howls in frustration* You can bet I’ll be reading this before the year is out, and then we can talk about it. 😀

    I wanna meet more book bloggers! *pouts*

    • I have never ever met the hold limit at any library I’ve ever used. I thought I would at the New York library, but it takes ten years for any hold to get to me, so it really just makes more sense to go to whatever library has it, and check it out in person.

      You should come to New York! It is nice here! They are putting up the Christmas windows (she said enticingly)!

  10. Why do I always read great reviews when my library’s website is down??? Aack! I really, really want to give this author a try…guess I’ll have to wait until tomorrow to request it. Great review!

    • I hope your library has it! Mine has this and her two famous novels and two collections of short stories, but not the other novels she’s done. I was all set to read them but it turns out I can’t. Looks like a trip to the Strand is in order. :p

  11. Ok, first of all, this book sounds fan-frickin-tastic, and I need to read it right now. Also, isn’t meeting bloggers fun? I have met a handful in the last year, and it is always such a nerdy good time. There is just something about being a bibliophile that binds people together, and I can’t wait to do it again. I also secretly poo-poo the idea of a book buying ban, but my husband is starting to insist…

    • Meeting bloggers is SO fun. I’ve always been envious of the bloggers who have met up.

      Can you do a thing where you clean out your shelves, and THEN buy new books? I frequently find I have books I don’t need to keep, and getting rid of them feels very cleansing, and frees up shelf space for books I truly need.

  12. BECF! Sign me up! And I didn’t know Shirley Jackson had written any non-fiction works– went and reserved them right away. I love learning new tidbits through others comments – thanks Jenny AND Theresa:)

    • Oh, her non-fiction books are very funny. She has a reputation as a dark and spooky writer, which is well-deserved of course, but her humor often gets overlooked. She is a clever clever writer.

  13. No prob, I’ll move right on up to New York 😉 Actually, I’m TOTALLY considering moving up there! No lie! Upstate New York! And whenever this cheese fry eating goodness happens, I must be notified!

    On to The Sundial! I hadn’t even heard of this book before, but OMG this sounds so good!! I need to get it. I just finished up with We Have Always Lived in the Castle and I want to read everything she’s written now!

    • What, leave New Orleans? I realize I’ve just left Louisiana and thus have no room to talk; and of course New York is great; but Louisiana (says a recent study) is the happiest state in America, and New York the unhappiest. Just something to consider.

      I wish she had written more! I love her writing so much, and she’s only written a handful of things because she died young. 😦

  14. I really MUST read Shirley Jackson, at least the scary books, that is; I’ve already read and adored her memoirs of having small children which I understand are in a completely different style. I also have a biography of her, because I am fascinated to know how her psychoses dovetailed in with her hilarious view of family life. There’s clearly a story there.

    • I will be interested to hear what you think of her biography – if it’s any good I’ll check it out myself. Biographies of writers are usually the only ones I can be bothered with, I’m afraid. But I might read her scary books before the biography, if you’re able to, at least one or two, so you’ll have a notion going in. (You’ve read “The Lottery”, right?)

  15. “The Shirley Jackson Situation” should be the name of a band composed of book bloggers.

    I love Shirley Jackson; her knack for creating atmosphere is unparalleled. I’ve shamefully never heard of The Sundial, but I think it’s time to look into her novels.

    • Hahahaha, I’ll get my guitar. :p

      Yeah, she can do atmosphere like whoa. I don’t know how she manages it so well! It’s all about the tiny details that she mentions in throwaway lines.

  16. Man I really need to read…anything by Shirley Jackson! I wanted to save her for Halloween and since I was sucking this year she was pushed until next year but now that there is another book by her I must read I may need to start early.

    • I know! There’s also this very funny bit where they meet up with another group who anticipates the end of the world, and they reluctantly decide to join forces. But it turns out the other group is expecting to be abducted by aliens. SO funny.

  17. This sounds really fantastic! I loved We Have Always Lived in the Castle and have been wanting to read more by Jackson since, but somehow neither my libraries nor the bookstores here seem to believe that she exists. Which is of course a perfect excuse for raiding The Book Depository 😉

    • I am thinking I will try to drop by the Strand today when I’m in the city, and see if they have any of her other books. Just see! Not necessarily buy them! :p

  18. When I was living in New York I found myself sitting next to Paul Auster at a cafe as he was being interviewed about his new book. That was a lot of fun. I blatantly eavesdropped and then got into a conversation with the interviewer after Paul Auster left.

    • Oo, cool. I wouldn’t have recognized Paul Auster if I saw him in the street, and I’m actually not a fan of his, but it would be very cool to hear a writer being interviewed. I am always eavesdropping on people in restaurants anyway.

  19. I am in the middle of her memoir-ish Life Among the Savages, about moving out of NYC and to Maine and raising a family there. Very funny, very wry. Keep tripping up on the references to smoking, though. Funny how that dates things.

  20. BECF is totally my goal for 2011.

    Also, I need to read more Shirley Jackson. How is it that I’d never even heard of this one? I am such a disconnected book lover. I’m always the last to learn about these things.

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  22. Many thanks to Eva for directing me to this post (I have been a bad blogger recently and missing great posts like this one).

    Isn’t Rachel lovely? I’ve been lucky to meet her a couple of times; I’ve been lucky to meet several bloggers. Book shopping with them is always dangerous; Verity and I are INSANE when we are together, complete enablers of the other.

    This review makes me frustrated as I know how difficult it is going to be to find a copy of The Sundial in the UK – I do like a challenge though! I’m also peeved at myself for not realising Jackson’s obsessions with houses (not so evident in her short stories but certainly the novels).

  23. I’ve read this now! So you can e-mail me and we can chat about the ending! And the beginning! Damn Jackson and her ambiguous ways. 😉 (Only not really…that’s why we love her. hehe)

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  25. Really late to this… just to say how pleased I am to see a Shirley Jackson reviewed which I know nothing about, and now (of course) am desperate to read. The only off-the-beaten-track Jackson I’ve read is The Bird’s Nest, about someone with multiple personality disorder – really interesting, but not as well written as the more famous novels. But amazingly ahead of its time.

    Also I love your comment on the houses in Jackson’s novels (although not Life Among The Savages, really) – Jackson (as you probably know) was agoraphobic, and that really comes through in her creepy novels.

    Ok, off to see how much I’m going to have to pay for The Sundial…

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