I thought Shirley Jackson reading week was a month ago and had been annoyed with myself for not finishing 'The Sundial' in time, turns out I had the dates wrong so I can still come to the ball.
I think I read 'We Have Always Lived in the Castle' after reading an article by Elaine Showalter where it was highly recommended - and promptly fell in love with Jackson. I read 'The Haunting of Hill House' soon after (sort of familiar from the film versions) and then 'Life Among the Savages' (very funny account of raising her children). After that there were a few short stories, and then a longish wait before Penguin reissued more of her back catalogue here in the UK. I bought them all with suitable enthusiasm, but haven't until now read any of them - Jackson's brand of claustrophobic (or perhaps agoraphobic is more accurate) gothic horror has been biding it's time to appeal to me again.
I think the best way to summarise 'The Sundial' is probably that hell is other people. It starts with a family returning from a funeral. Lionel Halloran has left the Halloran house and estate to his mother. Orianna Halloran is victorious, the rest of her family seem to hate her. Her daughter in law is openly stating that Orianna pushed Lionel to his death, her granddaughter, Fancy, is happy to repeat it, her sister in law Fanny despises her, and the paid hangers on, Mrs Ogilvie and Essex, seem resentful of her power. Orianna's husband, Richard, is wheelchair bound with a failing memory.
Orianna's first intention is to evict everyone but Fancy and Richard from the house, but her plans are thwarted when aunt Fanny has a vision in which her dead father tells her that the world is going to end and only those in the house will be saved. The father will protect his children. quickly the family comes to believe Aunt Fanny, and start to prepare for the end, gathering a rag tag collection of hangers on in the process, and we all wait to see what happens.
The first thing to note is that everybody clearly hates each other, the second is that it's an extremely funny book - which makes it more disconcerting, and finally - it is a very disconcerting book.
It will be interesting reading Jackson's other earlier works to see how often she returns to specific devices - I see things in 'The Sundial' which are worked out, and into, 'We Have Always Lived in the Castle' and 'The Haunting of Hill House' - both of which I found more straightforward than this one.
Jackson has her characters believe aunt Fanny's predictions, and indeed they seem as if they could be coming to pass, but I can't decide if she means the reader to believe as well. Written in 1958 it's a book of the nuclear age and the Cold War. It's never discussed - nothing outside the enclosed grounds of the house ever really is, but the bunker mentality that this small coven of antagonistic women and sycophantic men embrace reminds me of the draw the curtains and hide under the bed sort of advice that came in government pamphlets even when I was at school. It remains one of many unanswered questions though, which is what makes the book so compelling as well as unsettling. It's very much like getting lost in a maze where all the paths seem to be dead ends.
I see a few people describe this as their favourite Jackson - I feel far safer with the more straightforward 'I Have Always Lived in the Castle', but 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. I'm not so sure what to expect from those other books now but I'm looking forward to having my preconceptions about them challenged and getting a far better understanding of a favourite author.