The Sundial- Shirley Jackson

The Halloran family lives in a grand house surrounded by elaborate gardens surrounded by a stone wall.  Lionel Halloran has just died (possibly pushed down the stairs by his own mother, nonetheless) and the family is at a bit of a turning point.  Aunt Fanny goes for a walk in the gardens and receives a message from her long-dead father that the world is about to end, but he will protect those who remain in the Halloran house from destruction.  Aunt Fanny tells the others and they all readily accept that they will be the sole survivors of the coming apocalypse.  The Hallorans and a series of guests begin to make preparations for the strange new world they will soon inhabit.

Oh lordy, this is a weird book, but I love Shirley Jackson and this book was no exception.  There is a great blend of absurdism, horror, and wry humor in this book.  The characters’ preparations for the coming apocalypse range from ordering a crown to wear as queen of the new world to burning all the books in the library to make room for all the canned goods and first aid kits they ordered to throwing a party for all the villagers to celebrate their last day on Earth.  There are several nightmare-like scenes, which are absolutely brilliant horror writing.  You know those dreams where you are talking, but no one can hear or trying to run, but can’t?  Shirley Jackson was able to recreate that same feeling within those scenes and it’s sneak-up-on-you terrifying.  These nightmare-like scenes are probably my favorite of her horror writing.

The characters’ preoccupation with the end-of-the-world seems to serve to keep them busy.  They are rich and have nothing better to do than to keep themselves busy with their imagined crisis.  They also can avoid thinking of the unpleasant facts of their lives this way, particularly the fact that Mrs. Halloran seems bent on ousting anyone with claim to the Halloran estate.  Their ready acceptance of Aunt Fanny’s predictions also seems to stem from a shared desire by the characters to be rid of other people and create their own perfect world.  Mrs. Halloran plans early on to rid the house of everyone she can and, while that plan doesn’t come to fruition and more people keep getting added to the house, the end of the world seems to be a way for these already isolated people to isolate themselves even further.

There are elements in this book that strongly call back to other Shirley Jackson works and it made this book feel almost like the precursor to her greater works (it was in fact published before The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, so I guess this is probable).  I wouldn’t recommend you pick this as your first Shirley Jackson book (start with We Have Always Lived in the Castle), but if you like Jackson’s subtle horror, creepy houses, and slightly-off characters, this is definitely worth checking out.

The Haunting of Hill House- Shirley Jackson

Dr. Montague rents out the purportedly haunted Hill House, in hopes of finding concrete evidence of a haunting.  He is joined at Hill House by three others– Eleanor, a woman with no place in the world, Theodora, a funny yet spiteful psychic, and Luke, the future heir to the house.  From the beginning, something is off with the house.  It is ugly and disturbing.  None of the doors will remain open on their own.  The house is a maze with rooms connected to other rooms without the benefit of hallways.  The original owner of the house had it built with all the corners just slightly more or less than 90 degrees, so it is also disorienting to navigate the house.

Strange, unexplained things begin to happen.  There is a cold spot when you enter the nursery.  Writing appears on the wall, first in chalk and later in blood.  Mysterious knocking happens at night.  Eleanor, in particular, is singled out by the house which calls for her to come home.  Slowly, Eleanor falls under the house’s spell, driving her insane.

It has been at least ten years since I last read this book and I am not sure I like it quite as much as I like We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but Shirley Jackson is still a master at making the ordinary terrifying and at creating characters who appear ordinary, but who are quite off-kilter.  I think what makes it worse, is that the book is particularly disorienting (just like the house!) and you never quite know what is real, what is Eleanor’s imagination, or what is really happening.  And Jackson makes it clear that explaining the haunting isn’t going to happen when she introduces Mrs. Montague and her driver, Arthur.  The two try to explain the haunting by using a device similar to a Ouija board and by offering love to the spirits haunting the house.  In turn, they never experience any of the strange phenomena of the house because they are clearly hacks.

I will always recommend Shirley Jackson because I enjoy her writing and I admire her ability to create characters who look normal until you shine a bright light on them.  I also recommend this as a Halloween read to those looking for something a little spooky, especially those who aren’t into the super-scary.  It’s pretty tame in comparison to a lot of thrillers/horror stories, but if you are anything like me, it will still creep you out.  Finally, this makes for a pretty good readathon book, as it is fairly short, spooky, and weird.

Top Ten Tuesday: Theme Songs for Books

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature/meme brought to you by the folks over at The Broke and the Bookish (the pic also belongs to them).  This week’s theme is the Top Ten Books I’d Give A Theme Song To.

How fun is this week’s theme?  I must admit, though, that I have never ever thought about which songs go with which books, so this was pretty tough for me.  And my jet-lagged brain (it’s possible to get jet lag off a 2.5 hour flight across only one time zone, right?) couldn’t come up with more than five, so uh this is my Top Five Tuesday…

1. Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger with “I am a Rock” by Simon and Garfunkel – Hello, teen angst.  I have no need for friendship/friendship causes pain/it’s laughter and it’s nothing I disdain.

2. Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness with “Imagine” by John Lennon –Imagine all the people sharing all the world.  I like to imagine that the New Worlders in Ness’s series could find a way to share the world.  And I also also imagine the idealism that brought the New Worlders to the New World sounded a whole lot like Lennon’s idealism in “Imagine.”  Again, I cannot stop talking about how awesome the Chaos Walking series was (or how awesome John Lennon is, but that is another story).

3. An Abundance of Katherines by John Green with “Have I Told You Lately” by Van Morrison – Colin is constantly wanting validation of Katherine’s love for him.  So I sort of imagine that this song would remind him he is loved.  Abundantly.  And with much cheese factor.

4. Looking for Alaska by John Green with “Blister in the Sun” by the Violent Femmes – I have armchair diagnosed Alaska with bipolar disorder.  “Blister in the Sun” is a manic song.  Alaska is often manic.  Therefore they go together.

5. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson with “Hotel California” by the Eagles – Both the song and the book are creepy and unsettling.  They also start with seemingly normal situations (checking into a hotel; a girl going shopping in the village) and end pretty terrifyingly (you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave; homicidal girl burns down her house to keep her sister home forever).

Monday Memories: We Have Always Lived in the Castle- Shirley Jackson

I am planning on doing a weekly post called “Monday Memories” in which I talk about my book and reading memories, post about re-reads, or otherwise reflect on the literary life (that phrase makes me feel like such a snob, but I can’t think of a better way to put it).  Books have been a major force in my life and I’d like to take a little time to acknowledge the various ways in which reading has shaped me.

Shirley Jackson has been a favorite author of mine since my teenage years… I discovered Shirley Jackson the way (I assume) most people do- as a middle schooler reading the short story, “The Lottery.”  Coincidentally, a movie version of Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House was released around the same time we read “The Lottery” in school.  I used to fancy myself a fan of ghost stories, so I was pretty excited to watch The Haunting… I don’t think I knew going in that it was based on a book by Shirley Jackson or that it was the same Shirley Jackson who’d written the short story I’d loved in school.  I think that there was a “based on the book” credit in the opening, so watching the movie (which I remember as being not great, although it helped explain why Owen Wilson’s nose is so flat) inspired me to check out Jackson’s Haunting and at some point I made the connection that she was the writer of “The Lottery.”  I later went on to read all of her published work.

At some point in high school I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle and I was tickled to come across a few blog reviews which reminded me of how awesome Jackson was and inspired me to get my re-read on.  I decided to borrow the audiobook from the library, so that I could stop listening to radio commercials while I drive.

This story is creepy.  The narrator, Merrikat Blackwood, lives in relative seclusion with her older sister, Constance, and her elderly Uncle Julian… the rest of the Blackwoods are dead.  The Blackwoods are taunted and hated by the villagers for reasons that slowly come out as the book progresses.  This book offers a look into the mind of someone who is, at the very least, out of touch with reality.  At the same time, though, Merrikat is so very tied to the everyday (Today we neaten the house. Tuesday and Fridays I go to the village…etc) that her craziness sneaks up on you and fools you and you sympathize with her.  This is what Jackson excels at- twisting the everyday, the ordinary, and the usual into the creepy and disturbing.  That is exactly the sort of creepy that is worth reading and re-reading.

I am now compelled to go re-read all the Shirley Jackson I can find.  (Sadly, I think my mom got rid of all the books I left at her house during college and that I may have to rebuild my collection.)  If you have not read Shirley Jackson, I highly recommend you do.  She is a fabulous writer and I only wish she were more prolific!