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.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson

Creeeepy.  I read The Haunting of Hill House and liked it a lot, but when I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle, I thought, “Oh, yes, there’s the lady who wrote ‘The Lottery’.”  There are some of the same themes here, particularly towards the end, that mob mentality and the fear of things being different.  My review’s going to contain spoilers, because I don’t know how to talk about the book without any spoilers at all.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is about two sisters, Merricat and Constance, who live with their uncle Julian, the three of them all that survived an arsenic poisoning that killed the rest of their family.  Constance, in her twenties at the time of the event, fell under suspicion, and twelve-year-old Merricat went into an orphanage while Constance was on trial.  Now Merricat is a slightly odd eighteen-year-old dedicated to creating spells and protections to keep strangers away from her family.

I have no idea why I took against this book with such a passion when I read it for the first time in England.  It’s really good!  I love how the first half of the book builds towards the revelation of what happened to make Constance and Merricat and Uncle Julian such outsiders.  Shirley Jackson does a great job of writing Merricat, her efforts to keep her family safe from the outside world, how she needs Constance, particularly, to stay with her, how she dreams of them both getting away from everything (“going to the moon”).

Shirley Jackson can build an atmosphere, I have to say. In this as well as in The Haunting of Hill House (and her short stories), there’s a pervasive feeling of wrongness about what’s going on.  You can’t always put your finger on what’s wrong exactly, and when you can you can’t explain why it’s so ominous, but it always makes you a smidge uncomfortable.  I loved the fixation on Constance’s cooking, for instance, in the first parts of the book.  It’s a mundane detail except that there’s such an emphasis on it, and then every time it’s mentioned you start feeling jittery.

England Jenny was a cranky face.  We Have Always Lived in the Castle is great.  Thanks to my lovely blog commenters for repeatedly insisting that it was worth a read and was even better than The Haunting of Hill House.  I am not sure I agree, because I like haunted house stories, but it is definitely very very good.

Other people’s thoughts: Hey Lady! Whatcha Reading?, things mean a lot, Asylum, A Striped Armchair, Bart’s Bookshelf, Book Addiction, So Many Books, BooksPlease, The Bookling, Save Ophelia, Bending Bookshelf, book-a-holic, Bibliolatry, Bold. Blue. Adventure, Booknotes by Lisa, books i done read, Books and Cooks

Let me know if I missed yours!

The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson

At last I have finished a novel by Shirley Jackson!  I liked the short stories I read of hers in eighth grade (“The Lottery”, predictably, and “The Possibility of Evil”), but ignored her novels for years, and then I tried to read We Have Always Lived in the Castle when I got it out of the library at my university in Colchester, and hated it.  I got about ten pages in and couldn’t imagine how it would be possible to go another page.

I have to try it again, because I loved The Haunting of Hill House.  I reluctantly bought it for 50 cents at the book fair in March, and on a whim decided to bring it with me on this trip.  Absolutely loved it.  It’s all about a Doctor Montague who decides to rent out a supposedly haunted house, hire some assistants who have had experiences with psychic phenomena, and spend some time there recording the paranormal experiences that occur.  By reading through old accounts of inexplicable things that have happened, he finds Theodora, a rather dashing cheerful clever woman, and Eleanor, an early-thirties spinster who has spent the better years of her life caring for her sick, demanding mother.  They, along with the house’s current owner Luke, come to the house to join Dr. Montague.

Eleanor is the third-person narrator of the story.  It is clear from the first that she has been kept down and treated like a child by her family, but it seems that she will be able to break free from this.  She takes her first steps towards independence when she takes her sister’s car and goes to Hill House on her own; she makes friends with Theodora and Luke and Dr. Montague, easily, straight away.  Things could be looking up for our Eleanor.

Except, of course, they aren’t.  As the book goes on, Eleanor becomes extremely susceptible to the house’s particular brand of evil, which – to be fair – is targeting her from early on.  The reader comes to trust Eleanor’s perceptions of what is happening less and less – is Theodora actually acting from the motives Eleanor ascribes to her?  Is Luke interested in Eleanor, or is he not?  Eleanor seems very sure at times, but the reader often is not.

The Haunting of Hill House is all spooky and subtle.  Very Shirley Jackson, from what I can remember of her short stories.  I am a sucker for a story about a haunted house, and this is a particularly good one.  Thanks to Nymeth for the nudge to bump this up on my reading list!

Other views:

Nymeth at Things Mean a Lot
A Striped Armchair

So Many Books

Booknotes by Lisa

Books for Breakfast, Drinks for Dinner
Stuck in a Book
Melody’s Reading Corner

Let me know if I missed yours – so many of these say that We Have Always Lived in the Castle is better, so I really must remember to try it again when I get home.