The Sundial

When a book begins with a funeral with a man who died because his mother pushed him down the stairs, and everyone is totally matter-of-fact about it and not at all interested in consequences or fretful that this woman is now apparently in charge of the family, you know you’re in for a ride. And that is what The Sundial by Shirley Jackson is. The Halloran family is together for the funeral of Lionel, who was (and I cannot emphasize this enough) pushed down the stairs by his mother, when Aunt Fanny has a vision of her long-dead father telling her that an apocalypse is coming. So, of course, the thing for the family to do is to prepare to hunker down in the family home, so they’ll be safe and ready to begin a new world.

What is wild about this novel is how everyone just accepts the strange situation — or seems to, anyway. The family and a select few friends begin storing up supplies — or letting Fanny store them. One of them begins looking into a glass for details of the coming crisis. They plan a farewell party for the village. Some may be skeptical about the vision, but they mostly, as a group, go along with it.

Jackson milks this whole situation for all its comic potential. Overall, the book is much more of a comedy than The Haunting of Hill House or We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The characters engage in banter that is often quite savage. Each person has their own agenda and motivations, some of which are clearer than others, and it’s fun to watch them bump up against each other. The comedy is very dark, with murder and apocalypse always looming, but I found it hard to take any of it seriously. It’s am enjoyable book about preposterous people in a preposterous situation.

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3 Responses to The Sundial

  1. Rohan Maitzen says:

    I had never heard of this one before! I really liked We Have Always Lived in the Castle but this sounds like a missable one for me. Sometimes there is a reason some books are more famous than others, maybe.

  2. As you have probably gathered by now, I just really love the humor in this one. To me it almost heightens the creepiness factor — it’s creepy in the same way “The Lottery” is creepy, although less so, because it’s all about awful people matter-of-factly accepting a selfish and awful future.

  3. Ruthiella says:

    I am definitely on a quest to read all of Jackson’s novels. Like many readers, I read her more famous We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House first. But I also really enjoyed Hangsaman when I read it a couple of years ago and will definitely read this one too at some point. Her books are often funny. But also totally weird and creepy too.

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