RIP Challenge: The Sundial by Shirley Jackson

“I wish Aunt Fanny would stop babbling sacrilegious nonsense,” Mrs. Halloran said, and there was an ominous note in her voice.

“Call it nonsense, Orianna, say – as you have before – that Aunt Fanny is running in crazed spirits, but – although I am of course not permitted to threaten – all the regret will be yours.”

“I feel it already,” Mrs. Halloran said.

“The experiment with humanity is at an end,” Aunt Fanny said.

“Splendid,” Mrs. Halloran said.  “I was getting very tired of all of them.”

shirley-jackson-the-sundialYou know when you begin a novel with a grandmother matter-of-factly talking with her granddaughter about pushing the girl’s father down the stairs to his death that the usual rules of play don’t apply.  Shirley Jackson’s 1958 novel The Sundial, which I read as part of the 11th R.I.P. Challenge, was the the fourth of her books that I’ve read, and it was definitely the funniest, albeit in a bleak way.  The basic premise is that a group of awful people, some related and some not, trade witty barbs and gradually succumb to the apocalyptic visions of Aunt Fanny, in effect preparing for the end of the world.  Fanny’s vision says that everyone in the house will be spared and will perpetuate a fresh start for humankind. Everyone else is toast.

The imperious, controlling Mrs. Halloran (Orianna) has inherited the house (more like a mansion) after her son Lionel’s death.  Living with her are her mousy daughter-in-law, Maryjane, her granddaughter, the wickedly precocious Fancy, her husband Richard, who is wheelchair-bound and suffering from dementia, Fancy’s governess, Miss Ogilvie, a young man named Essex, who was supposedly hired to catalog the library, and Richard’s sister Fanny, who has the aformentioned vision while lost one night in the estate’s maze.  Add a distant cousin, a seventeen-year old named Gloria, an old friend of Orianna’s named Mrs. Willow and her two unmarried daughters, Julia and Arabella, and a stranger invited from the village basically because he’s a youngish (theoretically virile) man, whom they dub “The Captain.”

Oh, and along with the maze and a man-made lake, there’s an actual sundial on the lawn inscribed with the inscrutable phrase WHAT IS THIS WORLD?  No one really knows what it’s supposed to mean.

At first it seems like the members of the Halloran House are humoring Aunt Fanny by beginning to prepare for the end of the world, going along with her ideas about what to stock up on, even going so far as to burn the books in the library to make more room for provisions.  But as the story progresses, everyone seems to become more paranoid and fearful, and starts taking her predictions more seriously.  They even enlist Gloria to gaze into a mirror glazed with oil to see if she can more accurately predict the exact date of the apocalypse.  Once they’ve got a date, they throw a huge garden party for the poor, unsuspecting dopes of the nearby village, people they politely tolerated but never really intermingled with before these visions began.  Alcohol flows and shenanigans ensue.  The day after the party, a violent storm begins, and the Hallorans and their entourage make their final arrangments.

sunThe one character I felt sympathy for in the entire novel was young Fancy.  She’s really the only character who utters a lick of sense.  She’s been sheltered from the outside world for the entirety of her young life, and now she may never get to experience life outside the manor as an adult.  Here she talks with Gloria, questioning her about the wisdom of the adults and trying to understand things:

“Well,” Fancy said slowly, “you all want the whole world to be changed so you all will be different.  But I don’t suppose people get changed any by just a new world. And anyway, that world isn’t any more real than this one.”

“It is though.  You forget that I saw it in the mirror.”

“Maybe you’ll get onto the other side of that mirror in the new clean world. Maybe you’ll look through from the other side and see this world again and go around crying that you wish some big thing would happen and wipe out that one and send you back here.  Like I keep trying to tell you, it doesn’t matter which world you’re in.”

I’ve struggled to write about The Sundial since I finished it over a week ago.  It’s so…odd. I  don’t exactly know what to make of it.  It’s not scary, like The Haunting of Hill House, and it’s doesn’t have the pure beauty of language that We Have Always Lived in the Castle has.  Of the four Jackson novels I’ve read, it is my least favorite, but it’s still engaging and worth reading.  Shirley Jackson had such a brilliantly twisted mind, and her novels are so unusual, especially for the time period in which they were written.  I don’t know much about her biography, but I’m very much interested in how she was able to create such vividly strange stories in what I have always imagined to be a very stifling decade (while she raised kids!)  There is a new biography about her by Ruth Franklin called Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, but I think I want to read all of her works before I delve into her biography. In any case, The Sundial was witty, bizarre, and entertaining as all get out, a solid choice for your October reading list.



21 thoughts on “RIP Challenge: The Sundial by Shirley Jackson

  1. Well, I’m sure I’ve told you that this one’s on par with Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle for me, but I also admit that I read it shortly after reading The Bird’s Nest, so my expectations were on the low side. I love all the wonderful weirdness it contains!

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    1. I thought of you, Jenny, while i was writing this, because I remembered that you love it. It may be one of those books that grows on em over time. Wonderfully weird is a good description! I still haven’t read The Bird’s Nest yet – but I will!


  2. I’ve yet to read a Shirley Jackson book, but I don’t think I’d start with The Sundial.
    The Haunting on Hill House is one I’ve had my eye on for a while, though, because I do like scary books. I just wish I actually found books scary! I have a hard time getting legitimately spooked by words on a page. But oral storytelling might be more effective on me. Maybe I’ll try a spooky audiobook with the right narrator.

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  3. I just read We Have Always Lived in the Castle and loved it: I’ll be stocking up on more Shirley Jackson on my next bookshop trip. I love her short stories; she’s a complete boss with the shorter form. I think I’ll be asking for the biography for Christmas; like you, I want to read more of her work first. I hadn’t heard of The Sundial but you’ve made me want to read it.

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    1. Yay, Katy! Excited to have inspired you to read it. I have her The Lottery and Other Stories at home on my bookshelf yet to be read. I read The Lottery like everyone else had to in high school but have never read any of her other stories. Now you’ve inspired me to pick that collection up sooner!

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  4. What a fantastic quote! Heheh And now I realise that I did read this one of hers (when I first discovered her, I read four books in short order and am never entirely sure which ones they were – but that quote brought it all back!) just when I also realised that I would love to reread it!

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  5. “shenanigans ensue” – haha! Sounds like a great party! I haven’t heard of this one, but having loved We Have Always… and The Haunting of Hill House, I’m willing to give it a try. But Hangsaman is already on my little list, so this one will have to wait a bit. Though those shenanigans are extremely tempting…

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  6. I would be happy to get around to reading any of her books! I know the library has them, but they seem to be very scarce around here otherwise. Either very few people owned them to begin with, or they love them so much they don’t want to be parted with them. 🙂

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    1. Penguin Classics has, thankfully, reprinted them in the last couple of years. I know my library system has very few (older) copies of her novels, and they’re always in demand! I hope you get a chance to read one some day – she’s great (weird) fun!

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    1. Essex has such good lines – he is such an interesting character – I think I completely glossed over the nature of his relationship to Orianna until I was looking back at the passages I’d marked. So he was basically a gigolo? Crazy stuff!


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