More Books I Adore! Shirley Jackson’s, The Sundial

7 Jan

It is my policy to comment only on those books that I can enthuse about.  I dislike those who snipe at and savage a literary work; I’ve found that many times it is my own transitory mood or temperament that affects my reaction.  As Andre Gide wrote in “The Counterfeiters”, “My evening’s self would not recognize my morning’s self” and I distrust first impressions.  If I like a book, I must read it many times in order to evaluate it properly and discover just exactly why I liked it in the first place.  If I dislike it, it has already taken up too much of my time –why bother, then, to take up more time to review it?  What I strive to do with my reviews is to introduce works to other readers that have both changed the way I write, and have given me some true enjoyment.  Such a work is Shirley Jackson’s, “The Sundial”.

Like many of her works, one of the main characters in the novel is the House wherein the action takes place.  In “The Sundial” it is the Halloran mansion, a massively ornate house of perfect symmetry.  The only blot on its mad balance is the sundial itself – disjointedly out of place, an eyesore, engraved with a quote from Chaucer, “What is this world…?”

The characters, all of whom are distinctly nasty and small-minded, are the world in miniature.  And it is not pretty.  Soon after the beginning of the book, one of the characters – a neurotic spinster named Aunt Fanny, daughter of the man who built the house – suffers a dubious visitation from the ghost of her father.  He tells her that the world will be ending soon and that all who stay in the house will be safe.  The idea is as crazy as Aunt Fanny.  Imagine telling the story of Noah’s Ark and dwelling not on salvation, but upon the petty fights for predominance in the world to come among Noah’s sons and their wives.  “The Sundial” has an extremely nasty view of humanity, but it is also screamingly funny, with some of the best dialog ever created for a novel.

At the end, we are left wondering – for as the last day approaches, clouds and high winds indeed grip the house and unnatural darkness reigns.  Are we supposed to think that this is really a novel of the Apocalypse, or merely a case of mass hysteria produced by a handful of weak and self-centered misfits?  Shirley Jackson never answers.

It is interesting to know that Ms. Jackson herself suffered from a form of agoraphobia during the time she was writing this novel.  Some critics have seen it as an explanation about why she retreated from humanity – that she saw her neighbors as petty place seekers and bigots and simply wanted to be away from them.  Perhaps.  It might also portray the mind of the agoraphobic herself – that the more self-centered and narcissistic one becomes by retreating from the world, the more mean and petty are the slights and hurts that one imagines.  Who knows?

I’m probably making “The Sundial” sound like a chore to read.  Please believe me when I say that it’s not; it’s pure delight.  Just know that there are no conventional heroes in this book, and that it ends – as in Eliot’s poem – not with a bang, but with a whimper.  If you can get past this, there are riches galore to discover in it.  Just don’t expect to have a higher faith in humanity after you are done.

One of Shirley Jackson’s final stories (she died in her sleep at 48 years of age), is called “The Possibility of Evil.”  An elderly lady in a small town terrorizes the residents into submission by sending small anonymous notes to various people she considers guilty of adultery or dishonesty or secret alcoholism.  That is how I like to think of Shirley Jackson – sending out her novels and short stories, alerting us to the possibility of evil inherent in all of humanity, including ourselves.

For more of my reviews, friend me on Goodreads and Facebook (easy links are to your right) and be sure to download my new book, The Stand In. I cannot wait to hear your review.


18 Responses to “More Books I Adore! Shirley Jackson’s, The Sundial”

  1. Corey J. Goldberg January 7, 2012 at 2:02 pm #

    “The Haunting of Hill House” which is quite possibly my favorite novel of all time is what turned me on to writing horror. I had read a lot of horror before that, but had never considered writing it until that book scared the bajesus out of me. I thought, “I would like to do that.” So far I can’t even come close to the masterful writing of Shirley Jackson.

    “Sundial” is the only novel by her that I haven’t read. I plan on remedying that in the near future and highly recommend all of her work, short stories included.

    • Brad Geagley January 8, 2012 at 9:16 am #

      Corey, I agree about “The Haunting of Hill House”. Shirley Jackson is masterful!

  2. Miss Judy January 7, 2012 at 2:18 pm #

    I want to read this book

  3. PM January 7, 2012 at 7:35 pm #

    the book sounds great! i would check it out if it is available here. this is the first time i hear of the setting being a main character on a book. i am so intrigued to read this and see what you mean. i understand how you feel about reviewing a book that you did not like, i think i just did that with the last review i wrote. i can’t help it! but sometimes i think reviews even if negative are essential.

  4. Novel Girl January 8, 2012 at 1:16 am #

    Hi, Brad. I read the first few paragraphs of your novel via the Amazon preview function and I wanted to read more but I couldn’t download a sample because it’s not available on the Kobo store for my Kobo or on Smashwords as an ePub file. Sorry 😦

    • Brad Geagley January 8, 2012 at 9:15 am #

      Hi Rebecca, You can download through Amazon Kindle for your computer. Kindle for the computer is free! Hope you enjoy. Best, Brad

  5. yhosby January 9, 2012 at 11:56 am #

    Hey Brad,
    I love your blog!!!! It’s the perfect place to check out books that are interesting. I love to read–probably more than I love to write LOL.

    Keep smiling,

  6. Katie January 9, 2012 at 3:22 pm #

    “Are we supposed to think that this is really a novel of the Apocalypse, or merely a case of mass hysteria produced by a handful of weak and self-centered misfits? Shirley Jackson never answers.” –> I love a book that doesn’t give easy answers. 🙂

    • Brad Geagley January 11, 2012 at 10:06 am #

      Me too. I feel like the writer trusts me to stay with them.
      Keep reading!

  7. tinalynne January 10, 2012 at 8:57 am #

    Thanks for your very thorough review! I’ve always wanted to read this book, and you have just convinced me to kick it up a few notches on my goodreads list! But, as per your advice, I’ll save it for a time when I’m not too keen on humanity, as happens occasionally. It’s all about the timing, sometimes.

    • Brad Geagley January 11, 2012 at 10:07 am #

      Exactly. Living in New York for several years renewed and baffled my sense of humanity.

  8. Eden January 10, 2012 at 6:39 pm #

    Brad, you reminded me of one of my favorite authors of all time. Sounds silly, I know, but it always seems there are new books that demand attention. Thank you for giving me the gift of both nostalgia and inspiration. As well as a good dose of validation…

    Have a great day!

    • Brad Geagley January 11, 2012 at 10:15 am #

      I’m trying to read new books and see new films, but the pull of the best novels and films in the last century always captures me. Thank you for reading!

  9. momco3 January 11, 2012 at 5:42 pm #

    Shirley Jackson has such a vision of evil, doesn’t she? She’s not snowed when it initially appears petty or insidious.

    • Brad Geagley January 11, 2012 at 6:25 pm #

      Absolutely Ann. Have you read, “Notes for a Young Writer”? I give it to all my students!

  10. Ken Preston January 13, 2012 at 1:37 am #

    Good review, Brad. I have been meaning to read The Haunting of Hill House for years now, but never got round to it. Now, after reading your review, I have another book I need to read.

    • Brad Geagley January 13, 2012 at 5:14 pm #

      Ken, It’s amazing. I think Jackson is greatly underrated. I hope you’ll add, The Stand In to your to read list as well. I’d love to know your thoughts since I know we have books in common.

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