Shirley Jackson is such a stellar writer. I have yet to be disappointed by something she has written. The Haunting of Hill House is number one in creep factor for me and We Have Always Lived in the Castle is not far behind and her story “The Lottery” — is there anyone who doesn’t know this story? — Ray Bradbury’s story “The Veldt” is the only one that comes close to rivalling it in my opinion. So it was with much excitement that I undertook to read Jackson’s The Sundial for this year’s RIP Challenge.
How could Jackson writing about the coming apocalypse not be great? The Halloran family lives in a huge house on a huge plot of land. The story begins with a funeral — Orianna Halloran, who stands to inherit the house, allegedly pushed Lionel, the current master of the house, down the stairs. Now in charge, Orianna declares she is kicking everyone out. Aunt Fanny has lived in the house since she was a girl, Lionel was her brother. She conveniently has a vision in which the family patriarch declares the world will end but all who are in the house will be spared. Naturally, no one is to be kicked out after that and the population of the house actually grows by several as a few guests, invited and uninvited, come to stay. There is even briefly a rival apocalypse group who believe alien space ships will be coming to take them away before they destroy the world and those who have not been saved.
Far from being creepy, The Sundial turned out to be hilariously sarcastic and snarky. The best part is that most of the humor is of the subtle sort and if you aren’t paying attention it will flow right by. Even when I was paying attention I sometimes had to go back and reread a paragraph because — did she really say what I think she just said? Oh yes, yes she did! And then I would giggle with glee and thank my lucky stars I am reading the book and not actually in the book.
The day of the apocalypse arrives. A massive storm blows in with winds that howl and shake the substanial house. But the end comes sooner for someone and no one is that sad about it. Everyone is dressed in their best to meet the new world in which they expect to be the only survivors. And then the book ends. Did the apocalypse really happen or was it just Aunt Fanny making it up so she wouldn’t be made to leave the house? What did they see when they opened the door the next morning? We don’t know.
What the reader does know, however, is that these are the least likely group of people to be saved and tasked with making a new world. They are all so self-centered and manipulative they can’t see past their own noses and beleive that if the world truly is going to end, it is only appropriate that they are the ones to be saved. None of them are likable but we are not asked to like them. We only need to laugh.