Shirley Jackson: The Sundial


Oh, how I loved this book.

I’d been put off reading Shirley Jackson by descriptions like the one in the book’s blurb: “apocalyptic terror”, “gothic horror and shuddering suspense”. Well, I must be a very cool customer, then. I didn’t find any terror or horror here. What I found was a kind of Henry James with a sense of humour, a playful, Ghormegastian fantastical spirit, the undertone menace of Pinter, and the cool elegance of style and thought of Jane Austen. I’ll be reading a lot more Shirley Jackson. She’s well-known in America, but in Australia she certainly hasn’t the profile she deserves; perhaps it’s because she’s been classified in the horror genre rather than in literary fiction, where she belongs.

In a gilded, magnificent house surrounded by a wall to keep the hoi polloi out live the Halloran family: Mrs Halloran, who may or may not have pushed her own son Lionel down the stairs, her crippled husband Richard, deep in his second childhood, her daughter-in-law Maryjane, considered rather common, Maryjane and Lionel’s brutal young daughter Fancy, and Richard’s sister, the never-married Fanny. Essex, a sardonic young man (a touch of Pinter here) is supposed to be cataloguing the library, and then there’s Miss Ogilvie, the classic timid governess treated with benign contempt. Mrs Halloran has just announced that she longer needs Essex or Miss Ogilvie and is planning to send Maryjane away but keep Fancy with her, and house Fanny (quite comfortably) in the old tower, when Fanny has a nightmarish experience in the garden. A sudden mist descends, she is completely lost, and when she blunders up against the marble statues they are warm to the hand and seem alive. Then her dead father’s voice booms out of the mist:

Frances, there is danger. Go back to the house.  Tell them…..From the sky and from the ground and from the sea there is danger; tell them in the house. There will be black fire and red water and the earth turning and screaming; this will come…Tell them in the house that they will be saved. Do not let them leave the house; say to them: Do not fear, the father will guard the children. (26)

By some cunningly-induced suspension of disbelief, we don’t question it when the members of the household gradually come to believe in Fanny’s prophecy of doom, each of them responding in their characteristic way. Silly Maryjane says, “What I don’t see is how it will help my asthma. Lionel used to rub my ankles,” and Mrs Halloran says, “Authority is of some importance to me. I will not be left behind when creatures like Aunt Fanny and her brother are introduced into a new world. I must plan to be there.” (41)

Mrs Willow, an old friend of Mrs Halloran, and her two daughters turn up to stay and are drawn into the preparations for the cataclysm that only the inhabitants of the Halloran house are going to survive. Mrs Willow is a wonderful creation, a louche version of Madame Merle in Portrait Of A Lady:

Anyway, it’s money we need, as if there was ever anything else. I don’t figure there’s any way you can come right out and give us some, but people as rich as you are must know other people as rich as you are, and somewhere along the line there must be someone you can help us get a dime out of. Marriage would be best, of course; we might as well aim high while we’re about it. It better be Belle, though; she’s prettier and if you tell her anything enough times she’ll do it eventually. Besides, if Belle married money the chances are good I could ease a little of it out of her; with Julia, I could whistle. (51)

 News of the prophecy of doom comes to the local True Believers society, and Mrs Halloran has a visit from them:

The leader of the True Believers was a lady of indeterminate shape, but vigorous presence, perhaps fortified by the silent presence of Liliokawani, queen in Egypt. She swept into Mrs Halloran’s ballroom with the air of one testing the floor for durability; she was wearing a purple dress which presumably fit her, and a fur boa of color and fluff. Behind her came a second, also purple, lady, whose hair was red and, behind her, a man whose determined majesty was most convincing; he had magnificent hair, which suffered a little by comparison with the leader’s fluffy fur and he wore perhaps out of deference, a white waistcoat. At the very last came a withered little lady, peering. (90)

But the True Believers have a different vision of the future (ascending to Saturn in a spaceship, first having prepared by eschewing liquor, meat and all types of metal fastenings), and the two groups part ways.

It’s very funny, but we never lose sight of the message engraved on the sundial,  What is this world? and the lines that follow it in the original poem, which Essex quotes more than once:

What is this world? What asketh man to have? Now with his love, now in his colde grave, Allone, withouten any companye.

It’s a world in which the natural condition is to be alone, even in families and relationships.

“Reality,” Essex said, “Reality. What is real, Aunt Fanny”?

“The truth,” said Aunt Fanny at once.

“Mrs Willow, what is real?”

“Comfort,” said Mrs Willow.

“Miss Ogilvie, what is real?”

“Oh, dear.” Miss Ogilvie looked for help from Mrs Willow to Julia. “I couldn’t really say, not having had that much experience. Well…food, I guess.”

“Maryjane,” said Essex, “what is reality?”

“What?” Maryjane stared with her mouth open. “You mean, something real, like something not in the movies?” (58)

 So knowing, so elegant and so funny. Marvellous.

12 thoughts on “Shirley Jackson: The Sundial

    1. When I say she’s well-known in the US I’m not sure how widely-known she is among the general reading public there. She’s getting a lot of attention from the more literary critics. She was very popular in the 50’s and one of her books was made into a film “The Haunting” with Claire Bloom in it. Stephen King is a fan.

  1. her stories (notably The Lottery) show up in American lit classes a great deal. And it’s thanks to that story that I have never been much interested in reading more Jackson although I have The Haunting of Hill House somewhere for some unknown reason. Also picked up The Road through The Wall because it’s about a neighbourhood and I have a weakness for plot element.

    1. The Lottery doesn’t appeal to me either. I doubt you’d like this one, or another I’ve read since, We Have Always Lived In The Castle which I think was her last novel and doesn’t have the playfulness of this one. I was interested in her after reading an article about her in the LRB. Very impressed, but she’s not for all tastes.

      1. The Lottery was a life changing piece of fiction for me, read at school by one of a handful of teachers who read short stories aloud. Wondrous stuff. It was such a unique story back then (for my limited exposure) and always stays with me. Surely has to be a huge influence on modern teen fiction such as ‘The Hunger Games’.

        1. What a great teacher. It’s a story that seems to have come to define Shirley Jackson, and people expect that “hunger games” quality from her. I’ve only read two, but neither of them had that. They’re black, but funny too, and the word that keeps coming to me is “elegant”. A slippery kind of elegance. Or an elegant kind of slipperiness.

  2. An author I’ve been meaning to read for some time. I have a collection of her stories and a novella too – We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Hopefully I’ll get around to her later this year, maybe in the autumn for Halloween.

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