The Sundial by Shirley Jackson

Sundial Shirley Jackson1958. Penguin. ebook. 240 pages.

Recommendation from: Jenny (Reading the End)


Way back in July, Jenny of Reading the End, Ana of Things Mean a Lot and Simon of Stuck in a Book hosted a Shirley Jackson Reading Week. I started reading The Sundial during that week but finished the book several days after the event had ended, and then never got around to reviewing it on my blog. My negligence aside, it seems appropriate to review The Sundial on Halloween. It is after all about visions, messages from beyond the grave, and the end of the world. Or is it? The Sundial is one of those books where it’s unclear how much is characters’ delusion and how much is real.

The book opens as the Halloran family returns to the extravagant familial mansion after the funeral of the heir. The heir’s widow believes that her husband was pushed down the stairs by his own mother, the elder Mrs. Halloran. As we get to know all of the characters, that does not seem out of the question.The elder Mrs. Halloran is a practical, cold woman. In the wake of the funeral, assured that the estate is now hers, Mrs. Halloran announces her plans to evict or otherwise sideline various relatives and hangers-on who currently reside in the house. Her sister-in-law, Aunt Fanny, soon begins to experience visions and proclaims that her late father has delivered a warning: those who stay in the house will be saved from an imminent apocalypse. Mrs. Halloran decides to believe this warning and assumes control over the preparations. And so begins a strange but entertaining tale of how this dysfunctional group of people spend their time waiting for the end of the world.

The Sundial is often a very funny book. At one point, another doomsday group – the Society of True Believers – is received into the house, and the two groups compare notes. Mrs. Halloran is not impressed by them, and her condescension toward this other doomsday group is hilarious and absurd. She also can deliver a good set-down.

The Sundial would also be great fodder for literary analysis and I mean that in the best way. There’s so much thematic material to dig into, as the characters prepare for the end of the world under the sway of the domineering Mrs. Halloran. Perhaps the most striking passages are the conversations between one of the young women in the house, Gloria, and the only child in the house, Fancy.

“Well,” Fancy said slowly, “you all want the whole world to be changed so you will be different. But I don’t suppose people get changed any by just a new world”

Later, Gloria tries to explain the appeal of the new world for the adults in the house:

I think they want the same things you do, only you would . . . inherit them, so to speak, just by growing up. Things like excitement, and new experiences, and all kinds of strange and wonderful things happening; you get them anyway, just by the process of growing older, but for them . . . they’ve already outgrown all they know and they want to try it all over again. Even at my age, you keep thinking you’ve missed so much, and you get older all the time.

I never knew quite what would happen next in The Sundial or how it would end. I did not find it as creepy as The Haunting of Hill House or We Have Always Lived in the Castle, though there is a creepy, atmospheric scene in the middle when one of the household inhabitants tries to leave the house. But it is still thoroughly Shirley Jackson in its characterization and tone and of the same caliber as those other two novels. (And it is interesting that all three books center around a house and its particular history. Others have commented this recurring theme of house as fortress / prison.)

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Desperate Reader – ” . . . what ‘The Sundial’ has done is make me completely reassess Jackson. I knew she was funny, and knew she was a master of gothic creepiness, but this is more subtle (downright slippery) than anything I’d previously read. It requires more effort from the reader (at least from this reader), and makes me realise I’d seriously under estimated her.”

The Emerald City Book Review – “Classic country-house scenes of deliciously venomous dialogue are interspersed with visions and mysterious occurrences that give the whole book the quality of a nightmare from which it is singularly difficult to wake.”

Reading the End – “Though the characters are, true to Jacksonian form, not quite human, their inhumanity is portrayed with a light, witty touch.”


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4 responses to “The Sundial by Shirley Jackson

  1. Thank you for linking to my review! It led me to your blog, which I can now happily follow. I couldn’t say this was my favorite Jackson (as does Jenny), but it was definitely an experience! I’d like to read The Haunting of Hill House next…as you say, the oppressive/constrictive houses are a theme to explore in her work.

    • I really enjoyed your review! I had a hard time picking which quote to excerpt. I’m not sure which is my favorite of the three Jackson novels I’ve read. I enjoy them all about the same amount, I think, though We Have Always Lived In the Castle may be the strongest work overall.

  2. I love this creepy book. It’s maybe not quite as scary as The Haunting of Hill House, but I love that Shirley Jackson gets to be funny in this one. She is funny! in my opinion, and she often doesn’t get credit for it because of how creepy she also is.

    • I wanted to include a quote from a funny part, but so many of them were funny because of the overall context that it was hard to isolate it and get the humor of it across.

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