The Sundial

The Sundial



The Pequod Review:

Shirley Jackson earned her “Virginia Werewoolf” nickname with her fourth full-length novel, The Sundial. The book is a classically gothic story of a squabbling and self-indulgent family living in a huge mansion as they await the apocalypse. Despite its dire subject, the novel is one of Jackson’s funniest, full of gallows humor:

After the funeral they came back to the house, now indisputably Mrs. Halloran’s. They stood uneasily, without any certainty, in the large lovely entrance hall, and watched Mrs. Halloran go into the right wing of the house to let Mrs. Halloran know that Lionel’s last rites had gone off without melodrama. 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?”

“Yes mother.” Fancy pulled at the long skirt of the black dress her grandmother had put on her. Young Mrs. Halloran felt that black was not suitable for a ten-year-old girl, and that the dress was too long in any case, and certainly too plain and coarse for a family of the Halloran prestige; she had an asthma attack on the very morning of the funeral to prove her point, but Fancy had been put into the black dress nevertheless. The long black skirt had entertained her during the funeral, and in the car, and if it had not been for her grandmother’s presence she might very well have enjoyed the day absolutely.

“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?”

“Fancy!” said Miss Ogilvie.

“Let her say it if she wants,” young Mrs. Halloran said. “I want her to remember it, anyway. Say it again, Fancy baby.”

“Granny killed my daddy,” said Fancy obediently. “She pushed him down the stairs and killed him. Granny did it.”

As the plot unfolds, the book takes on a darker and more atmospheric tone, and the humor becomes less funny and more pointed. The resolution (which I will not spoil) is unsettling and not entirely satisfactory, but Jackson’s narrative is consistently entertaining.