The Sundial, by Shirley Jackson, Arion Press, 2011

Reading Shirley Jackson is a new experience for me.  The Lottery has been on my “to read” list for years, but I have never gotten around to it. Since receiving The Sundial last year from Arion Press, it has been sitting on my bookshelf just staring at me, the beautiful bright spine always catching my eye, finally guilting me into reading it.

The Sundial is part psychological suspense, part character study, and part apocalyptic, with small amounts of supernatural activity thrown in for good measure. Themes of human greed, class, fear, power and discontent are explored under the threat of world-wide annihilation, an imminent catastrophe that seemed quite possible in the Cold War era in which this was written. It is social satire that can be humorous and biting, in addition to dark.

The major characters all live in, or are visiting, the Halloran house, the story opening on the evening of the funeral of Lionel Halloran, who had been the master of the house. The house itself is a major character, a huge mansion lavishly decorated and furnished.

The Halloran land was distinguished from the rest of the world by a stone wall, which went completely around the estate, so that all inside the wall was Halloran, all outside was not…The first Mr. Halloran’s belief about the house…was that it should contain everything. The other world, the one the Hallorans were leaving behind, was to be plundered ruthlessly for objects of beauty to go in and around Mr. Halloran’s house; infinite were the delights to be prepared for its inhabitants.

A sundial stands in the middle of the grounds, with the inscription “WHAT IS THIS WORLD?” (which some of you may recognize from Canterbury Tales). Similarly, within the house is the epigram “WHEN SHALL WE LIVE IF NOT NOW?” These questions hang over the story, providing a framework from which to think about things that the characters clearly do not.

Lionel’s mother, Orianna Halloran, is to inherit the house, though Lionel’s wife thinks Orianna actually pushed him down the stairs to his death. In any case, Orianna seizes power and begins to dictate to the others, including who can remain living at Halloran and who must go. While this is going on, Aunt Fanny, the sister of Lionel’s father, while finding herself lost in the garden, has a supernatural vision of Lionel’s father telling her that the world is about to end, and only those in the Halloran house will be saved.

For various reasons, the group mostly buys into this end of the world prediction, and begin to prepare for it.

The question of belief is a curious one, partaking of the wonders of childhood and the blind hopefulness of the very old; in all the world there is not someone who does not believe something…

People who believe in nothing are easy prey to believe in anything. Massive amounts of supplies are ordered, books are burned to make room in the library for storing supplies. Orianna begins to prepare everyone for her becoming the Queen in the world to come. The spoiled child Fancy is angry that the world will end before she has had a chance to live in it.  She argues:

You all want the whole world to be changed so you will be different. But I don’t suppose people get changed any by just a new world. And anyway that world isn’t any more real than this one…I’d rather live in a world full of other people…

Ultimately Fancy’s opposition to the world outside of Halloran is tempered by her being promised that she will inherit the house when Orianna dies, and become Queen herself. Similarly, the coming end of the world does not seem to cause much inward reflection from those in the Halloran house who are to be saved, with one character (Essex, a young man, a hired hand of a sort who lives in the house) saying:

The sight of one’s own heart is degrading; people are not meant to look inward–that’s why they’ve been given bodies, to hide their souls.

At one point, Essex talks as if he is not looking forward to the next world:

I want the kind of dismal future only possible in this world…

But then contemplates the new world to come, thinking of:

The kind of life and world people have been dreaming about ever since they first began fouling this one.

Orianna has the group throw a party for all the villagers the night prior to their expected end of the world. The villagers are not aware of their impending doom (if one is to believe Aunt Fanny’s visions).  Orianna wears a gold crown preparing herself for her self-declared royal role. After the party, those to be saved start covering up the house and send all the servants away. The anointed time finally arrives and a violent storm is causing havoc outside. As the group begins to gather downstairs, they notice Orianna dead at the bottom of the stairs. Fancy takes the crown and others take Orianna outside placing her by the sundial. They go back in the house and…

It is hard to have too much of a plot spoiler since Jackson leaves the ending pretty ambiguous. Does the world end, or doesn’t it? The reader is left to decide that on their own. The implications of the world ending, with this group of people being the survivors, is a scary thought. What is Jackson saying here? Is this really a fair representation of humanity? As a critique of the social mores of the 1950’s, it makes me wonder what Jackson would think of today. My guess is she would be even more critical.

Shirley Jackson (1916-1965) was a popular American author whose work is becoming more and more recognized by critics. The Lottery (1948), her best known story, suggests a dark side to small town Americana.  Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959) is one of the more important horror novels of the 20th century. We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), Jackson’s last work, is also well thought of and explores many of the same themes as The Lottery and The SundialThe Sundial, while not as well known as the others just mentioned, is considered an important work from Jackson (some say her best), and certainly provides the reader a taste of her style and way of thinking. Jackson was married to Stanley Edgar Hyman (1919-1970), a literary critic of some renown.

The introduction of this edition is by Diane Johnson (b.1934), a novelist herself, who is also an accomplished essayist, critic and screenwriter. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books.

The illustrations are by Miles Hyman, an American artist who lives in Paris. He is the grandson of Shirley Jackson, making his choice for illustrating The Sundial both logical and inspired, as he obviously brings a deep understanding of Jackson into this work. He has illustrated many books for French and American publishers.

The book itself is classically beautiful. The orangish-tan cloth binding, with the crisp spine label and cover insert, certainly stands out from a color perspective, but in a nice way that simply looks classy.  It is clean, sharp and pleasing to the eye.  I absolutely love the Zerkall Book paper and the Winchell type; the combination of which is pleasing to the eye and just seems to blend into the story itself. The illustrations by Miles Hyman nicely match the content, tone, style and ambiguous timeframe of the story itself. The printing of the illustrations was clearly top-notch, as the colors and tones are nicely rendered.

About the Edition

  • Designed and produced at Arion Press by Andrew Hoyem
  • Introduction by Diane Johnson
  • Fifteen color illustrations by Miles Hyman
  • Large Octavo, 10 1/8″ by 6 1/2″, 226 pages plus 56 unnumbered pages for the illustrations, 282 total
  • Text pages printed by letterpress from Fridericus type in Monotype composition by Mackensie & Harris, with Winchell type handset for display, on Zerkall Book, a German mouldmade paper
  • The illustrations are printed by four-color offset lithography on McCoy Silk Book under the direction of Susan Schaefer
  • The binding is full cloth with an insert panel on the front cover for the sundial detail, and a spine titling label
  • Limited to 300 copies, mine is #138


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The Sundial, Arion Press, Cover and Spine
The Sundial, Arion Press, Cover
The Sundial, Arion Press, Spine Detail
The Sundial, Arion Press, Cover Detail #1
The Sundial, Arion Press, Cover Detail #2
The Sundial, Arion Press, Side View
The Sundial, Arion Press, Prospectus
The Sundial, Arion Press, End Pages
The Sundial, Arion Press, Title Page
The Sundial, Arion Press, Title Page (detail)
The Sundial, Arion Press, Sample Text #1 (Introduction)
The Sundial, Arion Press, Sample Text #2 (Beginning of Chapter 1)
The Sundial, Arion Press, Sample Text #3 (detailed macro view)
The Sundial, Arion Press, Sample Illustration #1
The Sundial, Arion Press, Sample Text #4 with Illustration Introduction
The Sundial, Arion Press, Sample Illustration #2
The Sundial, Arion Press, Sample Illustration #3
The Sundial, Arion Press, Colophon
The Sundial, Arion Press, Signature Detail

5 thoughts on “The Sundial, by Shirley Jackson, Arion Press, 2011

  1. For whatever reason, the film that comes to mind in reading this review and viewing the wonderful illustrations is Stanley Kubrick’s horror classic “The Shining”.

    H-E-E-E-E-R-R-R-R-R-E-E-S JOHNNY !!!!!

  2. Sounds a bit like Stephen King. Did you know that Arion publishes some of its issues in hard cover with a dust jacket (trade editions they are called)? I bought The Big Sleep from Arion in such a trade edition for $25. I was quite glad I did once I received it. the model for photos of Philip Marlowe was a very poor choice, or perhaps no one can fit the Marlowe role, but Humphrey Bogart.

  3. Great review and a beautiful book.

    I must agree with Robert – the illustrations are magnificent. Illustration 5 is great – I couldn’t help but dislike that group as soon as I saw them. I also thought that the technique of leaving the faces of the human characters out-of-frame in some of the images to draw your focus to the key objects works well, and is helped by the scale of the pictures.

    Like many people I have read ‘The Lottery’, but not this book. This review will ensure that I look out for it..

    The overall design and look of this book is stunning!

  4. Fascinating book. The illustrations are quite amazing: I have never been a fan of illustrations that spread across the gutter, nor of illustrations that bleed off the pages, but here they seem just right and it’s hard to imagine them being done differently. It’s also interesting how the traditional art processes such as pochoir, stone lithography, or linocut have been ignored in favor of offset lithography, the common choice for large scale reproduction.

    For film buffs, it’s interesting to contemplate that this story was published a few years before Luis Buñuel’s “The Exterminating Angel.” One wonders whether Buñuel was familiar with Jackson’s story.

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