Book Talk: 'The Sundial' by Shirley Jackson - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Book Talk: 'The Sundial' by Shirley Jackson

Alexander Wallace gathers at Halloran House.
In these times it feels like we’re living through the end of the world, and we certainly don’t feel fine. Moving beyond the things that do concretely exist, like the coronavirus or climate change, to give us the sensation that everything is going to hell in a handbasket. Making matters worse are those people who are absolutely convinced that doom is imminent and nothing can be done.

We have had our share of stories that show you the world as it is ending, or after it has ended, or just before it has ended. The last of these three is the sort of story which Shirley Jackson’s 1958 novel The Sundial exemplifies, with a potent twist on the concept written long before tales of the destruction of human civilization became as big as they are: you don’t even know if this apocalypse is real.

The Sundial is locked in a very particular time and place: a small town in New England sometime in the middle of the twentieth century. Your protagonists are quite wealthy and distinctly lacking in morality. The setting is mostly confined to a single mansion, a favorite setting of horror movies. Indeed, this book is reminiscent of such films in more ways than just that; so much of The Sundial, though, is horror through atmosphere and not through forthright scares. Frankly, I don’t think there is anything so lacking in subtlety here, but the effect is so potent that such brazenness is totally unnecessary.

In some regards, this book reminded me very much of The Shining. In both novels, a reason is concocted to keep a group of people who don’t particularly like each other to stay together in a large and lavishly furnished building which is used for the purposes of horror. Unlike The Shining, The Sundial doesn’t rely on anything so rational as a storm. Rather, the potent of doom is one of the members of the family seeing her dead father in a garden (in which is contained the titular sundial), telling her that the world will soon end.

It is that dead father whose funeral serves as the opening act of the novel. You learn quickly that this is not a happy family; they all snipe at one other and viciously disapprove of each other’s life choices. There is one thing that unites them, and it isn’t blood: it’s wealth, and the bounty that such wealth provides. Upon reflection, it reminds me of Knives Out but with more impending doom and less American immigration politics.

Almost immediately, you begin to see how these venal, corrupt, and frankly unpleasant people plan to deal with the impending end of the world. One main character finagles her way into becoming the self-appointed leader of this group, and gives herself a particular piece of clothing that signifies her status. It then dawns upon you the sheer lack of vision of these people; if, as the otherworldly message claimed, the world were to end, they cannot imagine a world less vicious and less unjust than their own.

It is such lack of vision that is perhaps the greatest tragedy of the book.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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