The Halloran family, and its various hangers-on, gather at the big house after the funeral of Lionel Halloran. Mrs Halloran probably killed her son Lionel by pushing him down the stairs, thus inheriting the big house herself. The family waits to see what their fate is after this power shift.
Aunt Fanny, everyone calls Mrs Halloran’s sister-in-law Aunt Fanny, is wandering in the shrubbery when she has a vision of her dead father. He warns her, “From the sky and from the ground and from the sea there is danger; tell them in the house. There will be black fire and red water and the earth turning and screaming; this will come.” He tells her that only the house is safe from danger.
Surprisingly, everyone believes her, or decides to err on the side of caution at least. Mrs Halloran declares herself the organizer of preparations for the end of the world, including the repopulation of earth. The inhabitants of the house find themselves props in Mrs Halloran’s vision of the future. What will the future be with Mrs Halloran at the helm?
I loved The Sundial by Shirley Jackson. It’s darkly funny. The family dynamics are interesting. Everyone suspects Mrs Halloran of murdering her son, but no one outright accuses her of the crime, though they do hint at it. Mrs Halloran doesn’t care what they think and says, “We could very well do without Lionel.” He mismanaged the property and she plans on doing a better job. Her husband is suffering from an age related illness, but she keeps on “a young man to catalogue the library” named Essex who she’s doing on the side. Aunt Fanny, or Frances, resents this usurper, but can’t do anything about it, since she holds the purse strings.
After Aunt Fanny has her vision, Mrs Halloran changes her plan to boot everyone out and instead keeps them all close to her. She will need someone to serve her in this new future, as well as young people to repopulate the Earth. She cleverly manipulates them all into doing what she wants. She makes Lucille Bluth look like an amateur.
The Sundial has some of the strongest female characters I’ve read in a long time. The only three male characters have little to do with the plot, it all turns on this house of women. Besides Mrs Halloran and Aunt Fanny, there is young Fancy, granddaughter and heir to the house, Fancy’s mother, and Mrs Ogilvie, the nanny. Mrs Halloran invites her old friend Mrs Willow and her two daughters, Julia and Arabella. Later, a seventeen year old Gloria appears out of nowhere.
The book then turns into a fancy episode of Doomsday Preppers, as the family prepares for the end. The characters in The Sundial are the worst human beings. I wondered if maybe the human race should end altogether if this is what is left to begin again. Even though there is no one to root for, I still loved this story and wanted to see how it was all going to end. It was a strange ending but perfect for this novel.
The Sundial is such a different novel from Shirley Jackson’s other works. It defies classification. Is it speculative fiction? Fantasy? Comedy? It’s all three and more. If you think you know Shirley Jackson, you need to read this. Her genius shines here like no other.
Recommended? Well, duh!