It’s Shirley Jackson Reading Week – hosted by Simon, Jenny and Ana. I had been planning just to scan the posts as my pile of books I must read (e.g. Anthony Powell) is rather large, but what hey! Why not read a book too? It’s not as if I didn’t have a Shirley Jackson novel ready and waiting on my shelves thanks to Simon who reviewed several of hers for the first issue of Shiny New Books.
I’m not entirely new to Shirley Jackson, having read and loved We Have Always Lived in the Castle – which I read pre-blog in 2008. I have consulted back to my master spreadsheet to see what notes I made about it then…
A creepy tale of a big house where the two Blackwood sisters, Constance and Merricat, live with their old uncle. The local villagers treat them with suspicion and hate, after six of the Blackwood family died one night from poisoning. Constance was tried and found innocent. The sisters and Uncle Julian try to live quietly in their mausoleum; Constance tends the garden, Uncle Julian sees to his papers, and the beloved Merricat patrols and protects the estate with ritual and amulets. However, one day cousin Charles arrives – and life will never be the same after that.
This short novel is an excellent exercise in paranoia, the whole ‘did she didn’t she’ question over the poisoning, the villagers’ suspicion (and jealousy, for the Blackwoods are not short of a penny, although they don’t flaunt it at all), and then the catalyst that arrives to upset everything. A very intense read and beautifully crafted tale. (10/10)
I read it in a Penguin Deluxe paperback produced for the USA. Love that cover.
But which did I choose to read this time?
The Sundial by Shirley Jackson
In one sentence The Sundial is a comedy about an upper class family who all hate each other thrust into a, to quote Private Fraser from Dad’s Army “We’re doomed!”, situation with Armageddon coming at the end of August. After the paranoia of WHALITC above, I hadn’t quite expected The Sundial, which preceded it by a few years to be so funny – it was absolutely hilarious!
It starts off with the Halloran family returning from Lionel’s funeral. The huge house they live in having reverted to Lionel’s parents. Even in the first paragraphs, the extent of there being no love lost between the Old Mrs Halloran and the Young Mrs Halloran, her daughter Fancy and the others is clear:
Young Mrs Halloran, looking after her mother-in-law, said without hope, “Maybe she will drop dead on the doorstep. Fancy, dear, would you like to see Granny drop dead on the doorstep?” […]
“I am going to pray for it as long as I live,” said young Mrs Halloran, folding her hands together devoutly.
“Shall I push her?” Fancy asked. “Like she pushed my daddy?”
As for Mrs Halloran herself, when asked by her invalid husband Richard:
“Did you marry me for my father’s money?”
“Well, that, and the house.”
Over the next few pages we are also introduced to Aunt Fanny (Richard’s spinster sister); Essex – the house librarian and Miss Ogilvie – Fancy’s governess, and the scene is set for constant bickering between the lot of them. Now that she is in charge of the house again, Mrs Halloran decides to let Essex and Miss Ogilvie go, and tells them so. However, an event happens (and we’re still in the first chapter), that will change everything…
Fancy and Aunt Fanny are walking in the further reaches of the garden. Fancy runs off and Aunt Fanny is temporarily lost and panics, but eventually finds her way to the huge sundial – in the middle of the front lawn and inscribed with the words “WHAT IS THIS WORLD?” – only to be faced with an apparition of her own long-dead father who tells her that the end of the world is coming and that only those in the house will survive. She makes it back inside and faints.
“The experiment with humanity is at an end,” Aunt Fanny said.
“Splendid,” Mrs Halloran said. “I was getting very tired of all of them.”
“The imbalance of the universe is being corrected. Dislocations have been adjusted. Harmony is to be restored, inperfections erased.”
The strangest thing is that Mrs Halloran decides to take Aunt Fanny’s ramblings seriously. She senses the opportunity for a real powerplay with herself as Queen Bee.
At this point, Jackson injects some new characters into the narrative. Mrs Willow and her two daughters, ‘friends’ of Mrs Halloran. Then Gloria, the daughter of a cousin turns up unexpectedly. With all this upheaval Essex and Miss Ogilvie are given a reprieve, (for of course Essex will have to be one of the sires of the new race after the apocalypse).
More new characters appear – amongst them we meet the Misses Devonshire who run a shop in the village; Edna’s True Believers who believe that aliens will be landing at the end of August, and the household acquires another male ‘the captain’, who is obviously not, but plays along with everything. Aunt Fanny sets about provisioning the house, meaning that the library has to be converted to a storeroom – and they burn the books – criminal! They discover that Gloria can see ‘visions’ in an oiled mirror and these confirm what is to happen…
You all know the story of Chicken Licken who believed the sky was going to fall on his head? It’s a much-loved tale that Disney had adapted in 1943 in an animated short made for the purpose of discrediting Nazism, his version having the moral of don’t believe everything you read. Jackson may well have been influenced by that with Aunt Fanny as Chicken Licken and Mrs Halloran the unscrupulous and manipulative fox. But, in the late 1950s the Cold War was really ramping up. In the timeline of the Cold War, in 1957 the US strategic air command was put on 24/7 alert against pre-emptive strike from Soviet ICBMs (not stood down until 1991!), and in November that year a report urged Eisenhower to review defense capabilities and build fallout shelters for US citizens. Aunt Fanny’s bunker mentality is well to the fore here.
Jackson takes all these elements of Gothic melodrama and puts them in a pressure cooker which will eventually explode in a brilliantly conceived ending. The humour, as we’ve seen, is often wickedly dark and the old Mrs Halloran is positively Machiavellian in her plans – I don’t think I’ve ever read such a funny apocalyptic novel.
My only quibble is that during the first third or so, I found it hard to keep up with who was who. Apart from some periods of extended description of the house and garden, the novel is almost all dialogue, and you have to keep your wits about you to know who said what, especially as Jackson is free and easy toggling between the formal names and Christian names of most of the characters or leaving the dialogue unfettered by not noting who said it. This confusion only increased whenever new ones were introduced, but the pace of the drama keeps you going.
Ultimately I preferred WHALITC, but The Sundial is also mighty fine (9.5/10) and, if the world were to end at the end of August, I’ll have had a good time that weekend at Jamie Oliver’s and Alex James’s Big Feastival so can go out on a high!!!
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Source: Own copies. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Penguin Modern Classics), paperback, 176 pages.
The Sundial (Penguin Modern Classics), paperback, 240 pages.