Shirley Jackson writes seriously weird fiction. I used to think of her as a horror writer, after reading the short story The Lottery and reading about The Haunting of Hill House umpteen number of times (I have still not been able to lay my hands on the book). However, We Have Always Lived in the Castle convinced me that her literary talents were much above that of the run-of-the-mill horror writer: the book under discussion has strengthened that belief. Shirley Jackson is a genius of the level of Franz Kafka – a genuine purveyor of nightmares. In The Sundial, we have Kafka meeting P. G. Wodehouse in an American manor house.
As with We Have Always Lived in the Castle, the opening is abrupt and horrifying and hits us with the power of a sledgehammer. The Halloran family has just returned from the funeral of young Lionel Halloran, who has been killed by his mother by being pushed down the stairs. Orianna Halloran killed her only son so that the house would belong to her – at least, until young Fancy, Lionel’s daughter, comes of age. Fancy is already dreaming of pushing her Grandma down the stairs, like she did her daddy.
And all this is mentioned in the first two pages: it’s only a prelude to the story proper.
The Hallorans are a dysfunctional family. Apart from the murderess Orianna, there is Maryjane, the weak wife of Lionel: Orianna’s husband Richard who’s paralysed from waist down and slowly sliding down the slippery slope of dementia: Fancy, who we shall see, is as psychopathic as her grandmother: the governess Miss Ogilvie: Essex, a young gigolo who has attached himself to Orianna – and last but not least, Richard’s sister Fanny (“Aunt Fanny”), who is skirting the thin line between eccentricity and insanity.
In fact, vintage Shirley.
The Halloran house, constructed by Fanny’s father, is situated near a village which is a tourist attraction in its own right, due to a notorious murder where a young girl wiped off her whole family with a hammer. The house is huge and laid out symmetrically: as is the grounds and garden. Only the sundial stands off-centre, striking a jarring note, with the curious inscription: WHAT IS THIS WORLD? written on it.
Immediately after Lionel’s death, Aunt Fanny loses her way during a morning ramble in the garden and apparently meets her long-dead father, who gives her the message of doom: the world is going to be destroyed.
“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.”
“The father comes to his children and tells them there is danger. There is danger. Within the father there is no fear; the father comes to his children. Tell them in the house.”
“When the sky is fair again the children will be safe; the father comes to his children who will be saved. 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. Go into your father’s house and say these things. Tell them there is danger.”
Fanny relays the message, and (here is where the novel starts to become pure Kafka) apparently the whole household buys into it – initially in a spirit of indulgence, but getting more serious as time goes on. The Halloran family picks up a few guests who become their fellow travellers on the road to Armageddon – Mrs. Willow and her daughters, Gloria, a cousin whose father is away on a game-hunting trip in Africa, and “the captain” – a young visitor to the village picked by Mrs. Halloran to add to her coterie. Together, they await the destruction of the old world and the birth of the new, and story moves slowly and surely to its destructive climax.
Shirley Jackson’s writing is pure delight. I have always felt that humour and horror straddled a thin line: many horror scenes could become sources of belly-laughter if not managed properly, and many jokes would make good horror stories. Shirley does the tightrope act splendidly. Her characters are unpleasant and serious enough to inspire unease, but they show their ridiculous side (especially in the dialogue which is very Wodehousian in this novel) often enough to make us laugh.
One cannot miss out the religious undertones. The only son who is sacrificed: the father who plans to destroy the world and save only one family: The burning of the books: The matriarch who wears a crown (which looks “just like a substitute for a hat”, to put in the ridiculous touch): Gloria, the seer who can see the future in a mirror and Ritual regicide (after a fashion) … the story could have slipped all the way into religious allegory, had not the author reined it in every time with expert hands.
The climactic party on the grounds of the Halloran house is a masterpiece of scene-setting. What starts as a rather formal affair slowly slides down into an orgy of eating, drinking, bawdy talk and sex. I was reminded of the painting “The Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hieronymus Bosch.
After this Armageddon is only to be expected.
The sundial, actually does not have much of a role in the story. (There is one scene where Maryjane and Arabella [one of Mrs. Willow’s daughters] discover Fancy’s grandmother doll, stuck full of pins as in a voodoo ritual, left on it. In hindsight, we can see this foreshadows the climax.) But we feel its sinister presence throughout. By being off-centre in a symmetric world, the sundial is questioning the reality of this world: this comfortable day-to-day world we are accustomed to.
Like Shirley Jackson’s novels.