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.