Shirley Jackson, The Sundial

1.

If you follow the news it’s hard not to spend time thinking about the end of civilization as we know it. An Australian think tank recently speculated that climate change might end it by 2050. I recently felt like reading Shirley Jackson and immediately thought of The Sundial.

The Hallorans are the wealthy patrons of a nearby village. They’ve just buried the heir. His mother, Mrs. Halloran, may or may not have pushed him downstairs. Mrs. Halloran is getting ready to rid the Halloran mansion of the family and their increasing collection of houseguests and hangers-on–everyone but Fancy, her only grandchild, who she’ll raise to be another Mr. Burns-esque tyrant like herself–when her sister-in-law Aunt Fanny receives a vision from Fanny’s dead father, the Halloran patriarch: in a few weeks the world will end. Only the people in the big house will be saved.

2.

People who’ve never read Shirley Jackson remember her as the author of that haunted house book and that story about the woman who’s stoned to death. They forget she’s funny. Shirley Jackson is one of the greatest comic writers of the twentieth century and The Sundial might be her funniest novel.

There’s a concept called “passage of disbelief.” I thought it was a common genre-criticism term, but I Googled it and the only reference I could find was on the website of a writer I’m not familiar with, so now I don’t know where I heard it. Anyway, the passage of disbelief is the part of a weird story where the characters go from disbelieving the weirdness (Aunt Fanny has lost her mind) to accepting it and dealing with the consequences (Okay, so the world is ending, what now?). As Aunt Fanny is prophesying, the uncanny appearance of a snake in the library gives the family a physical manifestation of weirdness to hang their faith on. And Mrs. Halloran is too proud not to go along: if the end is coming, she’s going to manage it. So The Sundial’s passage of disbelief is mercifully short.

This lets the book get on with things–it’s paced like a screwball comedy. And it lets Jackson milk plenty of humor from incongruity. The Hallorans receive a grand prophecy of doom and react as though the apocalypse is an momentous and inconvenient but basically normal event to plan around. The tone of their dialogue clashes with its subject. Like Arthur Dent, seeing Earth destroyed and asking if there’s any tea on this spaceship.

“Evil, and jealousy, and fear, are all going to be removed from us. I told you clearly this morning. Humanity, as an experiment, has failed.”
“Well, I’m sure I did the best I could,” Maryjane said.

The Sundial’s other comic strength is voice. Sometimes writers trying to be funny give every character interchangeable Whedonesque banter. That’s the wrong way to do it: great comedy is about individual voices and incompatible world views running into each other. Mrs. Halloran talks to everyone like she’s talking to a disappointing servant. Essex, the sycophantic young man hired to catalog the library, never misses a chance to show off his education. Miss Ogilvie, Fancy’s governess, is uncertain and timid, panicking at odd moments. Aunt Fanny switches between surface-polite cattiness to Mrs. Halloran and oracular profundities.

Any two characters are most likely talking past each other. Get everyone into the same room and you’ll be reading three overlapping conversations at the same time, not so much playing off each other as bouncing.

But The Sundial also has an air of menace. Shirley Jackson works in the liminal space between real and unreal and it keeps you constantly off-balance. It’s often unclear what’s possible in her stories, what’s metaphor and what’s literal. Even when they’re funny, they feel eerie. Didn’t we see some of these moments in earlier flashes of prophecy? As the climax approaches, isn’t the weather growing ominous? In Jackson’s world, prophecies of doom might come true.

3.

What is this world? what asketh men to have?
Now with his love, now in his colde grave
Allone, with-outen any companye.

The Hallorans’ sundial is inscribed “What is this world?” It’s a line from Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale,” and a good question. We use the word “world” in a couple of ways. There’s the literal world (the one that’s ending, everyone’s pretty sure) and then there’s my world, or your world, or Wayne’s or Christina’s world.

Mr. Halloran created a world of his own, self contained–when Julia, one of the guests, decides to leave she wanders through a fog only to end up back at the front gate, as though the outside world has already gone. Inside the Halloran house is a dollhouse Fancy rules with a grasp as tight as her grandmother’s. More ambitiously, Fanny has recreated the four-room apartment where her parents lived when she was a child, before her father struck it rich and built the walled estate near the village. Worlds nest in each other, each shutting out another layer of unwanted reality.

A Babbity businessman who had to be talked out of plastering his mansion with slogans like “You can’t take it with you,” Mr. Halloran wanted to be lord of the manor, philanthropic patron to the villeins. Fanny just wants her parents back. Recreating their apartment is as close as she can get. The Hallorans create worlds where they can imagine living the ideal versions of their lives, and shut out whatever reminds them of the suboptimal versions. Carving out your own smaller, more manageable world can be an act of self-definition. When you’re in charge of your world you’re in charge of your life.

4.

There are a lot of apocalypses in science fiction. Like, a lot. Everybody wants to blow up the world. Standing in the bookstore skimming the blurb of this year’s dozenth zombie nightmare, you may ask: what are all these apocalypses doing here? Good things, often. Some post-apocalyptic stories explore character in extremis. Some speculate on plausible if-this-goes-on disaster scenarios and ways to survive them. Some stories are about rebuilding society and finding new (hopefully more humane) ways to order it.

But some stories just sweep the world away to give their heroes a cleaner stage to act out their fantasies. A complex, uncontrollable, frustrating world is pared down and in the new, smaller, more manageable world the survivors’ true selves are free to blossom. Which may not be that different from their old selves: the stereotypical “cozy catastrophe” follows nice middle class people muddling through the collapse of civilization with middle class niceness. But sometimes the end of the world allows some previously ignored or undervalued person to express their true heroism. Unfortunately this is often a survivalist asshole who was previously ignored because he was an asshole.

Basically, these stories are fantastical echoes of J. M. Barrie’s The Admirable Crichton. So are many of their close cousins, portal fantasies and unexpectedly-tossed-into-space SF. The fantasy is that we’re not really the ordinary mediocre people we appear to be. Given the right environment–a desert island, a fantasy kingdom, a post-atomic wasteland–the flaws and virtues conventional society keeps repressed would manifest in everyone, and our own true, presumably better, selves would break free. That’s not necessarily an unhealthy fantasy! People’s environments do affect them. It can be fun to imagine finding one that fits you perfectly.

As long as you’re not a survivalist asshole. The failure mode for new-world stories is the hero who confuses being their best self with being better than everyone else, or being in charge. If your true excellence is only visible after some sizable chunk of the competition has vanished, how excellent can you truly be? Maybe there are limits to how radically a sudden change in environment can transform your character. Sometimes a confused man in a bathrobe, plopped down on a spaceship, is still a confused man in a bathrobe.

One of the Hallorans’ guests does some scrying with a mirror. Her first session isn’t reassuring, but the second time she sees people dancing in a garden, carefree. She’s seeing what everyone expects her to. Fancy isn’t impressed; she thinks the apocalypse won’t change anything, and after the Hallorans have their new world they’ll just start pining for the old one. After all, the Hallorans already have an oversized garden, and if they wanted they could dance in it: the villagers do when Mrs. Halloran throws them a goodbye barbecue. If the Hallorans aren’t dancing in this world, why would they in the next?

5.

The Hallorans don’t mix with the villagers. They’ll throw a festival, sure. They’ll fund the villagers’ schools and libraries and send the brighter ones to college; the lord has obligations to the villeins. But they don’t mix with them. That’s the root of Fanny’s split with Mrs. Halloran, who “came in through the servants’ entrance” to marry the heir.

In Mrs. Halloran’s dreams she lives alone in a cottage. That would be enough as long as no one intrudes to threaten her, like the obnoxious Hansel and Gretel who invade her nightmares. To stay in control of her own life Mrs. Halloran made herself into one of those people who control everyone else. She has it down perfectly; she condescends even to her oldest friends. By the end of the book she’s typing up rules for the new world. (“Mates will be assigned by Mrs. Halloran. Indiscriminate coupling will be subject to severe punishment.”) You’d think the Hallorans were the products of a feudal system going back as far as the land itself, that Mrs. Halloran hadn’t come in through the wrong door, and that Aunt Fanny hadn’t grown up in a four-room apartment. Mr. Halloran’s world insulates the Hallorans from any hint they might not be a superior class of people.

Although for superior people, the destined masters of the new world, the Hallorans seem singularly unprepared to survive. The supplies stockpiled in the library include such necessities as a gross of corncob pipes and a carton of tennis balls. They burned the books to make room; Fanny thinks they’ll be able to get by with a boy scout manual. She also picks up a random guy to help repopulate the earth:

“Captain Scarabombardon,” said Aunt Fanny unexpectedly.
“At your service,” said the stranger, who was clearly extremely bewildered.

See, Fanny has to name him because he needs a proper identity. The Hallorans can’t save just anybody. They’re also still keeping Essex (they probably don’t need him to catalogue the boy scout manual, but we never saw him working in any case) and Miss Ogilvie, but they’re sending the ordinary servants home the night before the event. Nobody thinks they’ll be needed.

6.

Douglas Rushkoff was once invited to talk to a half-dozen hedge fund executives about the future of technology. He was caught off guard by what kind of technology they were interested in:

Finally, the CEO of a brokerage house explained that he had nearly completed building his own underground bunker system and asked, “How do I maintain authority over my security force after the event?”… The billionaires considered using special combination locks on the food supply that only they knew. Or making guards wear disciplinary collars of some kind in return for their survival. Or maybe building robots to serve as guards and workers — if that technology could be developed in time.

For certain wealthy and powerful people, especially the libertarian, tech-savvy types, preparing for the future doesn’t mean making the future better or working to keep the worst possible futures from coming to pass. It means letting the disaster happen, surviving, and making sure they’re still the ones in charge.

Mr. Halloran was the beneficent lord only as long as his villagers played their roles, performing gratitude and staying in their places. If they dropped dead while building his house, he’d be angry about having to move the body. If he needed some farmer’s land for his grounds, he’d wall it off, and good luck finding a lawyer who didn’t work for him. He’d send the farmer’s son to college afterward. It wasn’t generosity. He needed to be the one who did the rescuing, the excellent one, the one who made the rules.

7.

If you’re ever feeling bored you might decide to sort apocalyptic stories into two groups. Or maybe you wouldn’t, I don’t know. Either way, one possible division is challenging and comforting stories. Comforting apocalypses are not all bad. Vonda N. McIntyre’s post-apocalypse Dreamsnake is comforting because it shows people trying to build a saner, kinder world. But other kinds of comforting apocalypse–cozy catastrophes, triumphalist survivalist stories–are about domesticating existential threats. They reassure the audience that the world can end without their personal worlds having to fundamentally change. Which is still not terrible if your personal world is modest. The problem comes when you need to be superior.

Mrs. Halloran can’t afford to ignore Fanny’s prophecy because she can’t imagine a world without Mrs. Halloran at the top.

“It is my house now, and it will be my house then. I will not relinquish one stone of it in this world or any other. Everyone must be made to remember that, and to remember that I will not relinquish, either, one fraction of my authority.”

If it were merely the end of the world, Mrs. Halloran could call Fanny crazy and put it out of her mind. But she can’t risk the possibility that the world might stop being about Mrs. Halloran.

Which it will, inevitably. She’s the center of her own world, because that’s everyone’s world looks from inside. But everybody dies, and eventually Mrs. Halloran’s world will just… stop existing. It’s the inevitable existential threat and it’s impossible to imagine. What is it like not to exist? It’s not like anything. But Mrs. Halloran also can’t imagine a world where she exists, and isn’t in charge.

Douglas Rushkoff ended his visit with the hedge fund executives by giving them some advice:

I suggested that their best bet would be to treat those people really well, right now. They should be engaging with their security staffs as if they were members of their own family. And the more they can expand this ethos of inclusivity to the rest of their business practices, supply chain management, sustainability efforts, and wealth distribution, the less chance there will be of an “event” in the first place.

They weren’t buying it. Which is odd, because in reality most people respond to disasters by coming together to help each other–pooling resources, rescuing neighbors, working together to clean up. That is, in fact, the surest way to survive. By contrast, an underground Bond-villain bunker patrolled by shock-collared security guards is absolutely the most harebrained fantasy in the world. But for Rushkoff’s hedge fund managers, it’s at least imaginable. The end of the world is one thing, but Rushkoff’s inclusive and less unequal world would be the end of their world.

Hallorans and hedge fund managers have something in common with the people who like survivalist aspirational apocalypses: they have more fun imagining the apocalypse than imagining how to prevent it, or recover from it. It’s easier to give up the world we all have to live in than to give up their own superiority.

The wealthiest people in the 21st century–the Jeff Bezoses and Mark Zuckerbergs–have a lot of money. Like, a lot. So much money it’s hard to conceptualize exactly how much money they have. They have social capital, too; everybody listens to them, even when they’re Elon Musk. A few billionaires, if they were willing[1], could fully fund a moon-landing level plan to mitigate the effects of climate change. Unfortunately there’s a small but non-zero chance this would result in a world where, instead of basically owning everything, they were merely very rich. So instead of doing necessary maintenance on the world our billionaires spend their resources on stuff that won’t rock the boat. Or, at most, come up with goofball comic book survival schemes like seasteading, private mars colonies, and underground bunkers in New Zealand.

Good books have many possible interpretations. As time passes they take on new, unintended interpretations in new cultural contexts, sort of like the way those Admirable Crichton-story characters show new sides to their personalities in different worlds. From a 21st century perspective, The Sundial looks like a takedown of billionaire disaster-prep fantasies. If we do come to the end of our civilization–from climate change, pandemics, rising fascism, whatever–it will be at least in part because our real-life Hallorans were more frightened by the end of their world than the end of ours.


  1. Even if they were unwilling, if we just made them, y’know, pay enough taxes to pull their weight.  ↩

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