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I’m Sorry Ms. Jackson

A great blackly comic novel resurfaces.

By From the May 2014 issue

Liz West (Flickr Creative Commons)
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The Sundial
By Shirley Jackson
(Penguin, 240 pages, $16)

In the foreword to Penguin’s new edition of The Sundial, Shirley Jackson’s fourth novel, Victor LaValle speaks of a “kinship” he and others feel with Jackson’s work. “When meeting with readers and other writers of my generation, I find that mentioning her is like uttering a holy name.” Yet since her abrupt death at the age of 48 in 1965, Shirley Jackson’s renown has atrophied to the point that her presence among general readers is about as apparitional as any of the real or perceived ghosts in her books. She is something of a literary two-hit wonder. She is known for a short story, “The Lottery,” a wickedly executed shocker she wrote in a matter of hours, was published in the New Yorker to mass threats of subscription cancellations, and is now a perennial student assignment, much to the desperate amusement of our nation’s honors English teachers. The other work for which she is remembered, The Haunting of Hill House, is a methodically crafted chiller of a novel that inspired a film that is itself frequently confused with at least two similarly titled films. Both of these pieces of writing produce a kind of unease that either repels readers to any kind of safety or, like Dr. Montague, the ghost hunter in The Haunting of Hill House, compels them to keep searching, if not for the solution to any proposed why? then to any possible variation of the what?

At first glance, The Sundial would seem to be the least compelling of the four Jackson novels Penguin has reissued this year. First published in 1958, a year before The Haunting of Hill House, it so resembles the latter novel and its follow-up, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, that one might assume that it is merely dry run for its successors. 

As with the two later novels The Sundial is set on a sprawling, neglected, and wholly foreboding mansion in rural New England, and populated with characters either afflicted with or oppressed by some form of psychic strife. Here we meet the Halloran family, who have just buried their only son Lionel, killed by a push down a flight of stairs from his own mother so that she might inherit the house, built by her father-in-law who “had nothing better to do with his money than set up his own world.” It is a world shared with Lionel’s invalid father, bitter widow Maryjane, mischievous daughter Fancy, perpetually nervous Aunt Fanny, and an ever-increasing number of hangers-on. Lionel, it turns out, is the most fortunate character among them, and also a complete afterthought once the first chapter ends, when Aunt Fanny is visited by her dead father, who informs her that the world is in danger and the house is the only safe place: 

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.

It doesn’t take a very long time, however, for The Sundial to distinguish itself; in fact it does so quite literally in the opening paragraph: “Maybe she will drop dead on the doorstep. Fancy, dear, would you like to see Granny drop dead on the doorstep?”

The Sundial is one of the great blackly comic novels of the mid-twentieth century, fit to stand alongside better-known books by Joseph Heller, Terry Southern, and Kurt Vonnegut. As LaValle rather surreally puts it, Jackson “would make a guillotine laugh.” Her sardonic narrative is threaded by dialogue that presages the cartoonish upper-crust affectation of filmmaker Wes Anderson—

“The experiment with humanity is at an end.”

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

—as well as the subtler deadpan of the Coen brothers: 

“One of the things I am going to miss,” she said confidently, “is fancy food.”

“Don’t care much for pie, myself,” he said. “Cake’s more my line.”

Comic though it is, it is a comedy that runs short on relief. What begins as a cold domestic tragedy very quickly takes a turn for the increasingly maddening, in which the fine line separating family and doomsday cult is dissolved almost entirely. Conflicts over inheritance give way to nightmarish visions in mirrors, to recruiting able-bodied men for breeding purposes, to burning books in a barbecue pit to make room for emergency supplies, to almost fatefully catastrophic escape attempts, to a summit in the ballroom with another doomsday cult in the style of Heaven’s Gate, and, finally, to a backyard bacchanal for an entire village on the eve of the day the Hallorans are certain they’ll all be killed. Even bridge games are played with the tension of a barely stifled chaos.

The end to which Jackson wishes to lead us is not obvious. To some it is alternately a satire of religious fervor—Mrs. Halloran, with her gold dress, floral crown, and sternly worded post-apocalyptic instructions has the air of papal extravagance—or of Cold War America. Even so, that would be underselling it. Jackson was less a moralist than an observer of human nature, albeit a less-than-charitable one. More terrifying than the visions or the impending end of humanity is the opportunism that leads the residents of the mansion to believe in them. “The question of belief is a curious one,” Jackson writes, “partaking in the wonders of childhood and the blind hopefulness of the very old.” But she concludes nonetheless: 

Not dying from day to day was as much as Mr. Halloran could fairly be expected to believe in; the rest of them believed in what they could—power, perhaps, or the comforting effects of gin, or money.

Most unsettling, of course, is the walled-in isolation in which these beliefs fester and are corrupted, and which is assumed as a kind of birthright to the family even before the premonitions. It is no surprise that Stephen King took inspiration from The Sundial as he wrote The Shining.

Whether as an older sibling to Jackson’s later “house” novels or as a middle child in her oeuvre, The Sundial may seem like something of a runt. But runts are not without their endearing qualities, and even strengths. Her blend of the twentieth-century comic with the nineteenth-century gothic may be idiosyncratic, but it is not unbalanced. Terror is an infinitely renewable resource; for Jackson, the drilling was never richer than when out on the ground of our anxiety and arrogance. She invites us to cower—and laugh. 

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About the Author

Chris R. Morgan is editor of Biopsy.