When we think about terror, and when we think about the things that scare us the most, getting stuck in a house with our relatives for the rest of our life is somewhere near the top of the list, with zombies that can run and The Gentlemen from the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Hush.” Could you imagine that the world is going to end, but you’ll be spared so long as you can stand living with your crazy aunt and the rest of your clan in a spooky old mansion? Would you consider the option if that was all you had? Written in the Cold War days, when the possibility of actually having to test this theory was just Eisenhower’s or Khrushchev’s push of a button away, Shirley Jackson’s 1958 novel, The Sundial,asks just that question.
You’ll see little allusions about the era peppered throughout Jackson’s work if you look deeply enough. She never commented on whether she intentionally let these things come to the surface or was just heavily influenced by what she read and saw in the under 20 years of writing she gave us, starting with her breakout 1948 short story, “The Lottery,” and ending around 1962 with the release of her classic, We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Regardless, Jackson’s work affects us by chilling us slowly, instead of jumping out and yelling “Boo!” She showed in her writing that she could be spooky, but Jackson was much more a master of the creepy; reading them today, her stories conjure up grainy black-and-white images, leaving us to fill in what’s obscured.
The primary setting of a big, old house is a recurring, and still quite effective, motif in Jackson’s work. There’s Hill House in The Haunting of Hill House; the isolated estate the Blackwoods live on in We Have Always Lived in the Castle; and, in The Sundial, the old Halloran mansion, where Aunt Fanny has convinced everyone they will stay while the world outside their door ends.
The Halloran mansion, as we find out early on, was the late Mr. Halloran’s tribute to his new-money status, moving his family there from “a bleak and uncomfortable top-floor apartment in a two-family house.” We’re told that “[h]is belief about the house, only very dimly conveyed to the architect, the decorators, the carpenters, and landscapers and masons and hodcarriers who put it together, was that it should contain everything.” This sounds a bit like something a 21st-century McMansion owner might demand. “The house,” he also felt, “must be endlessly decorated and adorned, the grounds constructed with exquisite care.”
Although this mansion might not be as well known as other fictional big houses (du Maurier’s Manderley in Rebecca, Miss Havisham’s crumbling Satis House, or Thornfield Hall from Jane Eyre), its presence as a character in The Sundial is unmistakable; the book would hardly be as enjoyable if it were set in a three-bedroom house in the suburbs, or an apartment building in a big city. What good would the book be if a group of rotten people who are indeed the last of the human race — although Jackson never fully confirms that — gathered inside some boring, undefined, ranch-style home? Jackson knew this, and by isolating her characters, and using a past-its-prime estate to give the book a defined Victorian Gothic setting, the story’s atmosphere suffocates the reader slowly.
Mr. Halloran had a man-made lake built so the grounds could have what he was convinced would be a proper grotto; gardens that Fanny wanders around when she receives her vision that the world will end, and the people inside of the house will be left to inherit the earth; and, of course, the sundial with a quote from from Canterbury Tales (“What is this world?”) inscribed upon it. All of this is proof that Jackson understood the value of a physical structure as much as she did story structure. The Halloran mansion is what makes The Sundial a deeper and much greater book than people give it credit for. It is not necessarily Jackson’s masterpiece, but only a master like Jackson could trap us in such a place and leave us asking for more.