In an attempt to be better about reading female authors this year, I decided to try another Shirley Jackson novel. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a personal favorite and her short stories are wonderfully creepy. Given that The Haunting of Hill House is always checked out of both my university and public libraries (and probably will be until the day I die), I picked up The Sundial, which I had never heard of before.
The story deals with the wealthy Halloran family and their vast mansion. After the (untimely and suspicious) death of her son, Orianna has taken possession of the house and is ready to kick out her daughter in law and various employees, merely hours after the funeral. Orianna is deeply despised by all the house’s occupants, including the ones she has deigned to let stay, such as her sister-in law, Fanny, and granddaughter.
Soon after this announcement, Fanny claims to be visited by the ghost of her father in a vision. He warns that the world will soon end in violent destruction and the only ones who will be spared are those living in the Halloran house at that time. After some coincidentally timed ill omens, the others start to believe her, including Orianna, who decides to let everyone stay in the house. As various family acquaintances come to stay with the Halloran’s, their doomsday group grows as everyone prepares for the end of the world.
Is Fanny serious or faking it in order to retain control of the house? After a while, it does not seem to matter who believes, as this pronouncement starts an avalanche of activity and planning that no one is immune from. A few members of the group were initially drawn in hoping to benefit from Orianna’s wealth. But as the story progresses, they start to get caught up in the mad fear of the apocalypse. They start seeing signs and bad omens in the most ordinary of occurrences, begin to stockpile supplies, and deal harshly with the few dissenters in their midst.
There is not a single likable soul in the whole bunch, which is Jackson’s point. Everyone is focused on themselves- their own needs, deepest desires, fears, and how they can best survive and benefit from this arrangement, often at the expense of the others in their group. Conversations are essentially monologues as these increasingly self-absorbed narcissists, too busy obsessing over their own feelings, stop responding or listening to each other. Everyone is anticipating the promised glories of the new world- Orianna in particular starts to make grand declarations and appoints herself queen of this Eden.
Jackson brings the same paranoid atmosphere, and heavy dose of misanthropy that she does in her horror stories. All the details combine to create an oppressive nightmarish realm that is still somehow brimming with the blackest of humor. Despite all of the descriptions above, the book was surprisingly funny and one couldn’t help but laugh at every single character’s awfulness. You couldn’t find people who deserved to inherit the earth less if you tried.
Is the prophecy is real or the group is merely feeding on its own madness? Jackson cleverly balances both possibilities while emphasizing that the characters’ behavior in the face of doom is far more important than the catastrophe itself. Hell, after all, is other people, regardless of the surrounding fire and brimstone.