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The Sundial
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Moderator's Choice > The Sundial by Shirley Jackson (April 2020)

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message 1: by Nigeyb (new)

Nigeyb | 8775 comments Mod
This is a moderators choice discussion thread for our 1950s themed month....


The Sundial by Shirley Jackson

This discussion will open on or around 1 April 2020

More about The Sundial....

Aunt Fanny knows when the world will end....

Aunt Fanny has always been somewhat peculiar. No one is surprised that while the Halloran clan gathers at the crumbling old mansion for a funeral she wanders off to the secret garden. But when she reports the vision she had there, the family is engulfed in fear, violence, and madness. For Aunt Fanny's long-dead father has given her the precise date of the final cataclysm




Susan | 9307 comments Mod
This novel was followed by, The Haunting of Hill House and, I suspect, may have been somewhat over-shadowed by that novel. It resembles, We Have Always Lived in the Castle more, to my mind - the big house, the dysfunctional family, complete with a rather unsettling child.

It has a fantastic beginning - the family returning from the funeral of Mrs Hallorhan's son- who, it is openly acknowledged, pushed down the stairs in order to inherit the property...

Loved this. I adore Shirley Jackson as a writer. For me, she is in my top ten favourite authors of all time.


message 3: by Nigeyb (new)

Nigeyb | 8775 comments Mod
It sounds wonderful Susan - thanks for those interesting opening comments


I've only read The Haunting of Hill House so far but was really impressed by that one

I hope to read more by Shirley Jackson, including this one, sooner rather than later. Whether I can fit it in this month I am not certain

I am looking forward to this discussion, and contributing to it when I start reading The Sundial


Susan | 9307 comments Mod
We Have Always Lived in the Castle remains my favourite, but I did really enjoy this novel.


message 5: by Nigeyb (new)

Nigeyb | 8775 comments Mod
Apparently a contemporary review of The Sundial claimed that the house represented the Catholic Church and that the squabbling characters represented dissenting Protestant factions, Shirley Jackson, herself an agnostic, remarked that she knew very little about the Catholic Church but was pleased that she had somehow gotten so much of it in.


message 6: by Nigeyb (new)

Nigeyb | 8775 comments Mod
Another interesting piece of The Sundial related trivia I came across suggests that the house presented in The Sundial might foreshadow the infamous Hill House in The Haunting of Hill House.

There are many striking similarities between the two houses: both Hill House and Halloran House were built by husbands as gifts for wives who died shortly before or shortly after seeing the house for the first time, and both houses become the source of conflict between various family members who disputed the house's ownership. The "mathematically perfect" grounds and the jarring sundial might remind readers again of Hill House, where all the floors and walls are said to be slightly off-centre. Halloran House, while never openly "haunted" in the sense that Hill House claimed to be, is the site of at least two ghostly visitations.


Jill (dogbotsmum) | 562 comments I can't really see why this was tagged as horror. Up to halfway it read more as a cosy sort of mystery. When a fairy tale was featured I did think that, that was maybe what the author wanted it to be thought as.


message 8: by Nigeyb (new)

Nigeyb | 8775 comments Mod
Interesting. Thanks Jil. I didn't know it was tagged as horror


She has been cited as an inspiration by Stephen King, Donna Tartt, Neil Gaiman and Joanne Harris, so perhaps it's just a marketeer being a bit too simplistic?

I suppose it also depends on how we define "horror"

The Haunting of Hill House is definitely a form of horror but perhaps not what many think of when the genre comes to mind. It's what I'd label psychological horror, or perhaps Gothic horror.

Was this your first book by Shirley Jackson?

What did you make of it?


message 9: by Val (new) - rated it 3 stars

Val | 1710 comments I reserved the library copy, but was not able to collect it before the libraries closed. I will read it and join in the discussion after they reopen.


message 10: by Jill (new) - rated it 2 stars

Jill (dogbotsmum) | 562 comments I have read The Haunting of Hill House and also The Lottery and found neither of those what I would class as horror. I intend to read We Have Always Lived in the Castle to see if I feel anything different about that.
I have read other authors of Gothic horror and found them disturbing, also a lot of psychological horror books which have made more of an impression on me. I'm afraid Shirley Jackson just does not work for me.


Susan | 9307 comments Mod
I don't think of her books as horror, necessarily, but I did find Hill House very creepy. Mind you, I am easily scared!


message 12: by Jill (new) - rated it 2 stars

Jill (dogbotsmum) | 562 comments On Goodreads her books are tagged as horror and I think she is something like the ninth position in the authors of horror books in the kind of lists the web puts up. Obviously, these lists should be taken with a pinch of salt as the saying goes.


Roman Clodia | 4400 comments Mod
Genre definitions are quite slippery, though, aren't they, and books don't always fit neatly into a single category.

Anyway, I've just downloaded the book, will make a start later. Thanks Nigeyb for that intriguing snippet about the houses.


message 14: by Nigeyb (new)

Nigeyb | 8775 comments Mod
Susan wrote: "I don't think of her books as horror, necessarily, but I did find Hill House very creepy"

Me too


Roman Clodia wrote: "Genre definitions are quite slippery, though, aren't they, and books don't always fit neatly into a single category"

Abso-blimmin-lutely


Jill wrote: "On Goodreads her books are tagged as horror....

Obviously, these lists should be taken with a pinch of salt"


Yes indeed - one person's horror is another's anodyne


Susan | 9307 comments Mod
Obviously, this book revolves around the idea that the world is going to end, so I can see the religious themes. I think Shirley Jackson could write anything and I would love it - her dialogue is, for me, just so sharp and her writing so dark. It is hard to say much, without revealing the plot, and I am aware that only myself, and Jill, have read it so far.

I do think giving her the label 'horror,' does not really encompass her writing. She is more gothic, to my mind.


message 16: by luce (new) - rated it 4 stars

luce (wishfullyreading) | 5 comments I really enjoyed this one the first time I read it and I look forward to revisiting it.


Susan | 9307 comments Mod
Good to hear, Anna Luce :)


message 18: by Jill (last edited Apr 01, 2020 04:40PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Jill (dogbotsmum) | 562 comments I think that gothic horror is defined as a sub-genre of horror. Horror, overall to me means monsters etc gothic to me means more psychological horror. I had expected from Jackson a psychological horror. Unfortunately I have not found it from her. I have found it written by other authors (Peter James with his The House on Cold Hill ) was probably the last one I read. Michelle Paver is another author who to me writes a very chilling book


message 19: by Susan (last edited Apr 01, 2020 11:08PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Susan | 9307 comments Mod
Yes, it is personal. I do find Jackson quite creepy - probably more than I found Michelle Paver, who I also like. The House on Cold HIll was, to me, more typically horror. Have you read F.G. Cottam? I like his books. He wrote The Lucifer Chord among others, which combined music/horror, so Nigeyb might enjoy it too.


message 20: by Nigeyb (new)

Nigeyb | 8775 comments Mod
I'm not overly attracted to horror - and certainly not anything with gore, violence and brutality

I think that's why I enjoyed The Haunting of Hill House because it allows the reader's imagination to do the work - which is ultimately what is most frightening.

Apparently the most effective torture techniques rely on what might happen rather than actual infliction of pain or discomfort.


message 21: by luce (new) - rated it 4 stars

luce (wishfullyreading) | 5 comments Personally I find Shirley Jackson's stories unsettling. While Jackson does a touch of the humour to her narratives, the realities she presents us are still are scary. Jackson's horror isn't overt, it is subtle. I think this is because what Jackson herself feared the most is difficult to grasp (in her diaries she often wrote that what terrified her the most was losing her identity: “we are afraid of being someone else and doing the things someone else wants us to do and of being taken and used by someone else, some other guilt-ridden conscience that lives on and on in our minds, something we build ourselves and never recognize”).
While The Sundial is perhaps one of Jackson's 'lighter' novels, it still has its eerie moments.


message 22: by Nigeyb (new)

Nigeyb | 8775 comments Mod
You've nailed it there Anna Luce - bravo


Roman Clodia | 4400 comments Mod
Interesting discussion: 'horror' is such a capacious genre with at one end slasher/monster type fare and at the other those ambiguous stories like The Turn of the Screw which turn on the tension between haunting or madness. But, even then, classic 'monster' stories like Dracula or Frankenstein have deep subtexts probing cultural anxieties.

I've certainly abandoned some crime novels where the detailed and gratuitous descriptions of sexualized violence again female bodies has sickened me. They can be more horrific than 'horror'.

From what I've read of Jackson, it seems to me that she's interested in the 'horrors' that exist in everyday life: domesticity and the inner workings of family in the confines of the house seem to inspire her.


Roman Clodia | 4400 comments Mod
Our posts crossed, Anna Luce: great quotation and I'm glad to know it as I go into this book.


message 25: by luce (new) - rated it 4 stars

luce (wishfullyreading) | 5 comments Roman Clodia wrote: "Interesting discussion: 'horror' is such a capacious genre with at one end slasher/monster type fare and at the other those ambiguous stories like The Turn of the Screw which turn on..."

Well said! Most of Jackson's heroines struggle to reconcile themselves with their society’s ideal of a ‘normal’ woman and they often try to escape their oppressing realities through their imagination.


Susan | 9307 comments Mod
I don't like violent, or gory, horror, either.

I think Jackson writes wonderfully - especially with regard to female characters. However, Essex, a male character in this novel, is especially likeable, in my opinion.


message 27: by Jill (new) - rated it 2 stars

Jill (dogbotsmum) | 562 comments Something I did find very topical during this time of lockdown, was Aunt Fanny stockpiling for all she was worth.


Susan | 9307 comments Mod
Yes, very topical! I wonder whether she brought toilet paper? I think she was too ladylike to consider it!


Roman Clodia | 4400 comments Mod
Started this last night and I'm *loving* the writing! The dialogue is brilliant, so macabre and wickedly funny. I was underwhelmed by We Have Always Lived At The Castle so may have missed out on Jackson if it hadn't have been for our group reading of Hill House.

That snake is almost an epitome of Jackson's style: it looks like we're in one type of book and then a snake crawls out from behind the bookcase...


message 30: by luce (new) - rated it 4 stars

luce (wishfullyreading) | 5 comments Roman Clodia wrote: "Started this last night and I'm *loving* the writing! The dialogue is brilliant, so macabre and wickedly funny. I was underwhelmed by We Have Always Lived At The Castle so may have missed out on Ja..."

'Wickedly funny' is a great way to describe this novel.


Susan | 9307 comments Mod
I'm so glad you are enjoying it, RC! I do agree that it is very funny and I loved the dialogue too.


message 32: by Nigeyb (new)

Nigeyb | 8775 comments Mod
Roman Clodia wrote: "Started this last night and I'm *loving* the writing! The dialogue is brilliant, so macabre and wickedly funny"

You're selling it to me. Thanks RC. Obviously Anna Luce and Susan had already convinced me that this book is a winner - your comments are the cherry on the cake


Roman Clodia | 4400 comments Mod
Susan wrote: "Yes, very topical! I wonder whether she brought toilet paper? I think she was too ladylike to consider it!"

No, she does: "toilet paper (four cartons)" along with suntan lotion, canned olives and "a keg of nails"! ;))


Susan | 9307 comments Mod
She was prepared, wasn't she?! However, the library... sob!


Roman Clodia | 4400 comments Mod
Susan wrote: "She was prepared, wasn't she?! However, the library... sob!"

Yes, it sort of tells us all we need to know about the Hallorans (view spoiler).

That orgiastic party - and Essex's wicked stories about pirates... hilarious! And the crown! I really loved the humour even while I found it distinctly misanthropic.

I'm interested in what others think about the title and the significance of the sundial?


Susan | 9307 comments Mod
I am a little wary of spoilers, as I am not sure who else is planning to join in. I did love Essex's wicked humour and I really loved him as a character.


Roman Clodia | 4400 comments Mod
Yes, you're right - I'd hate to spoil this for anyone. We'll wait a bit...


message 38: by Judy (new) - rated it 3 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4376 comments Mod
Nigeyb wrote: "Another interesting piece of The Sundial related trivia I came across suggests that the house presented in The Sundial might foreshadow the infamous Hill House in [book:..."

I have slightly belatedly started this and immediately thought it felt very similar to Hill House, so I was very interested in this information, Nigeyb. Thank you. I am saving the introduction in the Penguin Kindle edition to read after I finish the book, so am wondering if there will be more about this aspect in there.


message 39: by Judy (new) - rated it 3 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4376 comments Mod
A lot of very dark humour in all the dialogue in the opening chapter after the funeral, going round and round in circles. I think Jackson's writing is brilliant here but the endless conversation becomes rather wearing - I was glad to move on to Aunt Fanny's strange vision in the garden.


Susan | 9307 comments Mod
In theme, I think it is more similar to her last novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle (my fave so far). I have really enjoyed reading her less famous novels though - firstly, as I have loved them all - but also as there are recurring themes, I think, so you have hints of other characters, books. I know we have spoke about this before, but when readers mostly got books from library and there were several months/years before the 'next' read, these were less apparent. Now we tend to download a whole series and often read without gaps, or only with short periods between books, I think that can be more obvious.


Roman Clodia | 4400 comments Mod
I've only read this, Hill House and Castle and two books of short stories (oh, more Jackson than I thought) and yes, she does seem to come back repeatedly to the grotesque things that go on in families and within the house. I love the way she makes suburbia and domesticity so macabre.


message 42: by Judy (new) - rated it 3 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4376 comments Mod
I'm about a third of the way through now and have got on to the reminiscences about the Harriet Stuart murders - very macabre. I wonder if they are based on any real cases.


Susan | 9307 comments Mod
They had the sense of a story that Jackson had picked up somewhere, didn't they? In Hangsaman Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson she uses a real case - a girl who went missing from the college her husband worked at. There is a true crime book about the case, which I keep meaning to read, but haven't got to yet.


message 44: by Judy (new) - rated it 3 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4376 comments Mod
I've now got on to all Aunt Fanny's stockpiling, which is definitely very topical, as mentioned earlier in the thread. I'm wondering how much the others actually believe in her visions and how much they are just humouring her.


Susan | 9307 comments Mod
They seem to want to believe, don't they, which is quite odd?


Roman Clodia | 4400 comments Mod
I thought there was also a sense of one-upmanship about Mrs Halloran - if there was going to be an apocalyptic drama, then she intended to be at its heart!


Roman Clodia | 4400 comments Mod
Do we think this is also a riff on 1950s concerns about nuclear war?


message 48: by luce (new) - rated it 4 stars

luce (wishfullyreading) | 5 comments Roman Clodia wrote: "Do we think this is also a riff on 1950s concerns about nuclear war?"

I think it definitely reflects the 1950s mood of impending doom.


message 49: by Judy (new) - rated it 3 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4376 comments Mod
I enjoyed the rival end-of-the-world believer who says that metal fastenings and fine wine are banned!


message 50: by Judy (new) - rated it 3 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4376 comments Mod
RC and Anna Luce, thank you, I hadn't thought of the 1950s concern over nuclear war.


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