The Sundial by Shirley Jackson (1958)
This is Shirley Jackson day for your intrepid Forgotten Books crew.
How to describe Jackson's writing? In 1966, a posthumous (Jackson died in 1965 at the age of 48) collection of her stories was published which title described her writing to a tee: The Magic of Shirley Jackson. Her work was magical. When I was in high school, I was reading a paperback copy of The Lottery and a friend of my mother's saw the cover. "That can't be the same woman who writes all those funny stories in The New Yorker, can it?" she asked. One of the stories in that collection was "Charles" -- not from The New Yorker, but from Mademoiselle -- which was also included in her fictional memoir Life Among the Savages. In that book the story was knock-down funny, yet when included in The Lottery, "Charles" was deliciously creepy.
Some books come at you like a roaring train, sweeping you up while you inhale its pages, dizzy with its speed and excitement, while others beg you to read them slowly, savoring each line and every description. The Sundial is one of the latter. It begins:
"After the funeral they came back to the house, now indisputably Mrs. Halloran's."
The house is a grand one, part of a large estate, and built by Mrs. Halloran's father-in-law. The funeral was for her son Lionel, who had done a rather poor job managing the estate. Despite the fact that the house was "indisputably" hers, the house and the estate belonged the Mrs. Halloran's invalid husband who is slowly descending to senility.
Mrs. Halloran (Orianna) and her husband Richard are only some of the people who live in the house. There's the family Richard's much younger and much ignored sister Aunt Fanny, Lionel's widow Marijane who hates her mother-in-law ("Maybe she will drop dead on the doorstep. Fancy, dear, would you like to see Granny Drop dead on the doorstep?"), and Marijane's ten-year-old daughter Fancy (who dutifully replies, "Yes, mother." and then asks, "Shall I push her?"). Also part of the household is Miss Ogilvie, Fanny's tutor, who keeps hidden the treasured notes sent her once a day by Richard until he became wheelchair bound four years earlier, and Essex, who was ostensibly hired to catalog the estate's library and whom Aunt Fanny visits in the night.
And then there is the house itself:
"The character of the house is perhaps of interest. It stood upon a small rise in the ground, and all the land it surveyed belonged to the Halloran family. The Halloran land was distinguished from the rest of the world by a stone wall, which went completely around the estate, so that all inside the wall was Halloran, all outside was not...There were twenty windows to the left wing of the house, and twenty to the right; because the great door in the center was double, on the second floor there were forty-two windows across and forty-two on the third floor, lodged directly under the elaborate carvings on the roof edge; Mr. Halloran had directed that the carvings on the roof be flowers and horns of plenty, and there is no doubt that they were done as he said...On either side of the door the terrace went to the right for eighty-six black tiles and eighty-six white tiles, and equally to the left. There were a hundred and six thin pillars holding up the marble balustrade on the left, and a hundred and six on the right, on the left eight wide shallow marble steps led down to the lawn, and eight on the right. The lawn swept precisely around the blue pool -- which was square-- and up in a vastly long lovely movement of a summer house build like a temple to some minor mathematical god; the temple was open, with six pillars on either side."
The house was as rigid in its design as its occupants were rigid in their respective roles -- with one exception in each case.
"Intruding purposefully upon the entire scene, an inevitable focus, was the sundial, set badly off center and reading WHAT IS THIS WORLD?"
And Aunt Fanny. Early in the morning before sunrise, joined by Fancy, she goes for a walk down a side path and through the secret garden. The fog rises, they stray off the path, Fancy points out a gardener trimming the hedges from a ladder, Fancy runs on ahead and Aunt Fanny becomes disoriented and lost, crying for help which never comes.
"Somehow, sobbing, Aunt Fanny came through the mist and into the summer house and in four wide steps was running down the lawn toward the sundial in the darkness, and then she heard a voice. It was huge, not Fancy at all, echoing and sounding around and in and out of her head: FRANCES HALLORAN, it came to her, FRANCES, FRANCIS HALLORAN. Twisting as she ran, moving wildly, she put out her hands; FRANCES HALLORAN, the voice went on, FRANCES."
The voice belongs to her dead father: "Frances, there is danger. Go back to the house. Tell them, in the house, tell them, in the house, tell them that there is danger. Tell them in the house that in the house it is safe. The father will watch the house, but there is danger. Tell them."
Aunt Fanny goes back to the house and tells her story. Fancy denies ever walking in the garden with Aunt Fanny and everyone knows that a gardener trimming hedges in the dark is an impossibility, but everyone also listens to Aunt Fanny when she tells them that the world is going to end and they must stay in the house to be safe. For various reasons, everybody yields to Aunt Fanny and the household prepares for the end of the world.
Old Mrs. Halloran is also expecting guests, Mrs. Willow, and old friend, and her two adult daughters. When they arrive, we see that
"Mrs. Willow was a large and overwhelmingly vocal woman. with a great bosom and an indefinable air of having lost some vital possession down the front of it, for she shook and trembled and regarded herself with such enthusiasm that it was all the casual observer could do at first to keep from offering to help. Whatever she lost and was hoping to recover, it was not her good humor, for that was unlosable, and seemed, in fact, as much a matter of complete insensitivity as of good spirits; Mrs. Willow was absolutely determined to be affable, and would not be denied."
Now the stage has been set and the players in their respective places for this neo-Gothic tale to take place. What happens next, you'll have to discover for yourself.
For links to more Forgotten Books and stories by Shirley Jackson and others, go to Patti Abbott's blog Pattinase.