Shirley Jackson The Sundial

ISBN 13: 9780848803704

The Sundial

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9780848803704: The Sundial

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!

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About the Author:

Shirley Jackson was an influential American author. A popular writer in her time, her work has received increasing attention from literary critics in recent years. She has influenced such writers as Stephen King, Nigel Kneale, and Richard Matheson.

She is best known for her dystopian short story, "The Lottery" (1948), which suggests there is a deeply unsettling underside to bucolic, smalltown America. In her critical biography of Shirley Jackson, Lenemaja Friedman notes that when Shirley Jackson's story "The Lottery" was published in the June 28, 1948, issue of The New Yorker, it received a response that "no New Yorker story had ever received." Hundreds of letters poured in that were characterized by, as Jackson put it, "bewilderment, speculation and old-fashioned abuse."

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

 

Chapter 1

After the funeral they came back to the house, now indisputably Mrs. Halloran’s. They stood uneasily, without any certainty, in the large lovely entrance hall, and watched Mrs. Halloran go into the right wing of the house to let Mr. Halloran know that Lionel’s last rites had gone off without melodrama. Young Mrs. Halloran, looking after her mother-in-law, said without hope, “Maybe she will drop dead on the doorstep. Fancy, dear, would you like to see Granny drop dead on the doorstep?”

“Yes, mother.” Fancy pulled at the long skirt of the black dress her grandmother had put on her. Young Mrs. Halloran felt that black was not suitable for a ten-year-old girl, and that the dress was too long in any case, and certainly too plain and coarse for a family of the Halloran prestige; she had had an asthma attack on the very morning of the funeral to prove her point, but Fancy had been put into the black dress nevertheless. The long black skirt had entertained her during the funeral, and in the car, and if it had not been for her grandmother’s presence she might very well have enjoyed the day absolutely.

“I am going to pray for it as long as I live,” said young Mrs. Halloran, folding her hands together devoutly.

“Shall I push her?” Fancy asked. “Like she pushed my daddy?”

“Fancy!” said Miss Ogilvie.

“Let her say it if she wants,” young Mrs. Halloran said. “I want her to remember it, anyway. Say it again, Fancy baby.”

“Granny killed my daddy,” said Fancy obediently. “She pushed him down the stairs and killed him. Granny did it. Didn’t she?”

Miss Ogilvie raised her eyes to heaven, but lowered her voice in respect for the sad occasion of the day, “Maryjane,” she said, “you are perverting that child’s mind and very possibly ruining her chances of inheriting—”

“On this day,” young Mrs. Halloran said, putting her mouse face into an expression of reproachful dignity, “I want it clearly understood by all of you, everyone here, and remembered always, if you don’t mind. Fancy is a fatherless orphan today because that nasty old woman couldn’t stand it if the house belonged to anyone else and I was still a wife, a beloved helpmeet.” She breathed shallowly, and pressed her hands to her chest. “Pushed him down the stairs,” she said sullenly.

“The king, thy murdered father’s ghost,” Essex said to Fancy. He yawned, and moved on the velvet bench, and stretched. “Where are the funeral baked meats? The old woman can’t be planning to starve us, now she’s got it all?”

“This is unspeakable,” said young Mrs. Halloran, “to think of food, with Lionel barely cold. Fancy,” and she held out her hand. Fancy moved unwillingly, her long black skirt swinging, and young Mrs. Halloran turned to the great stairway. “My place now is with my fatherless orphaned child,” she said over her shoulder. “They must send my dinner up with Fancy’s. Anyway I believe I am going to have more asthma.”

WHEN SHALL WE LIVE IF NOT NOW? was painted in black gothic letters touched with gold over the arched window at the landing on the great stairway; young Mrs. Halloran paused before the window and turned, Fancy toiling upward still, entangled in her skirt. “My grief,” young Mrs. Halloran said, one hand on her breast and the other barely touching the wide polished handrail, “my lasting grief. Hurry up, Fancy.” Together, young Mrs. Halloran leaning lightly upon the shoulder of her daughter, they moved out of sight down the hall, into the vastness of the upper left wing which, until so recently, they had shared with Lionel.

Essex looked after them with distaste. “I should think Lionel would have welcomed the thought of dying,” he said.

“Don’t be vulgar,” said Miss Ogilvie. “Even with me, please remember that we are employees, not members of the family.”

I am here, however, if you please,” Aunt Fanny said suddenly from the darkest corner of the hall. “You will of course have overlooked the fact that Aunt Fanny is here, but I beg of you, do not inhibit your conversation on my account. I am a member of the family, surely, but that need not—”

Essex yawned again. “I’m hungry,” he said.

“I wonder if it will be a proper dinner? This is the first funeral since I’ve been here,” Miss Ogilvie said, “and I’m not sure how she manages. I suppose we’ll sit down, though.”

“No one will waste a minute’s thought if Aunt Fanny stays safely in her room,” Aunt Fanny said. “Tell my brother’s wife,” she said to Essex, “that I will join her in grief after dinner.”

“My first funeral, too,” Essex said. Lazily, he stood up and stretched again. “Makes you sleepy. You think the old lady’s locked up the gin in honor of the day?”

“They’ll have plenty in the kitchen,” Miss Ogilvie said. “But just a teensy one for me, thanks.”

_____

“It’s over,” Mrs. Halloran said. She stood behind her husband’s wheel chair, looking down onto the back of his head with no need, now, to control her boredom. Before Mr. Halloran had become permanently established in his wheel chair Mrs. Halloran had frequently found it difficult to restrain her face, or the small withdrawing gestures of her hands, but now that Mr. Halloran was in the wheel chair, and could not turn quickly, Mrs. Halloran was always graceful with him, standing protectively behind him and keeping her voice gentle.

“He’s gone, Richard,” she said. “Everything went off beautifully.”

Mr. Halloran had been crying, but this was not unusual; since he had been made to realize that he would not, now, be vouchsafed a second run at youth he cried easily and often. “My only son,” Mr. Halloran said, whispering.

“Yes.” Mrs. Halloran forebade her fingers to drum restlessly upon the back of the wheel chair; one should not fidget in the presence of an invalid; in the presence of an old man imprisoned in a wheel chair one ought not to be impatient. Mrs. Halloran sighed, soundlessly. “Try to be brave,” she said.

“Do you remember,” Mr. Halloran asked, quavering, “when he was born, we rang the bells over the carriage house?”

“Indeed we did,” Mrs. Halloran said heartily. “I can have the bells rung again, if you like.”

“I think not,” Mr. Halloran said. “I think not. They might not understand, down in the village, and we must not indulge our own sentimental memories at the expense of public opinion. I think not. In any case,” he added, “the bells are not loud enough to reach Lionel now.”

“Now that Lionel is gone,” Mrs. Halloran said, “I am going to have to get someone to manage the estate.”

“Lionel did it very poorly. At one time the rose garden was perfectly visible from my terrace, and now I can only see hedges. I want the hedges all cut down. At once.”

“You are not to excite yourself, Richard. You were always a good father, and I will have the hedges trimmed.”

Mr. Halloran stirred, and his eyes filled again with tears. “Do you remember,” he said, “I wanted to keep his curls?”

Mrs. Halloran put a little wistful smile on her face and came around the wheel chair to look at her husband. “Dear Richard,” she said. “This is not healthy for you. I know that Lionel loved you better than anyone in the world.”

“That’s not proper,” Mr. Halloran said. “Lionel has a wife and child, now, and his father must no longer come first. Orianna, you must speak to Lionel. Tell him that I will not have it. His first, his only duty is to the good woman he married, and his sweet child. Tell Lionel . . .” He stopped uncertainly. “Is it Lionel who died?” he asked after a minute.

Mrs. Halloran moved around to the back of the wheel chair and permitted herself to close her eyes tiredly. Lifting her hand with deliberation, she put it down softly onto her husband’s shoulder, and said, “His funeral went off very well.”

“Do you remember,” the old man said, “we rang the bells over the carriage house when he was born?”

_____

Mrs. Halloran set her wine glass down very quietly, looked from Essex to Miss Ogilvie and said, “Aunt Fanny will be down for dessert?”

“Adding the final touch of jubilation to a day of perfect happiness,” Essex said.

Mrs. Halloran looked at him for a minute. “At such a remark,” she said finally, “Lionel would have found it necessary to remind you that you were not here to be ironic, but to paint murals in the breakfast room.”

“Orianna dear,” said Essex with a little false laugh, “I had not suspected you of fallibility; the one painting murals in the breakfast room was the last young man; I am the young man who is supposed to be cataloguing the library.”

“Lionel wouldn’t have known,” Miss Ogilvie said, and turned pink.

“But he would have suspected,” Mrs. Halloran said agreeably, and then, “Aunt Fanny is at the door; I hear her little cough. Essex, go and let her in, or she will never bring herself to turn the doorknob.”

Essex opened the door with a flourish; “Good evening, Aunt Fanny,” he said. “I hope this sad day has agreed with you?”

“No one needs to worry over me, thank you. Good evening, Orianna, Miss Ogilvie. Please don’t bother, really; you know perfectly well Aunt Fanny is not one to worry over. Orianna, I shall be glad to stand.”

“Essex,” said Mrs. Halloran, “set a chair for Aunt Fanny.”

“I’m sure the young man would rather not, Orianna. I am accustomed to taking care of myself, as you have surely discovered.”

“A glass of wine for Aunt Fanny, Essex.”

“I take wine only with my equals, Orianna. My brother Richard—”

“Is resting. He has had his dinner, Aunt Fanny, and his medicine, and I promise you that nothing will prevent your seeing him later in the evening. Aunt Fanny, sit down at once.”

“I was not brought up to take orders, Orianna, but I suppose you are mistress here now.”

“Indeed I am. Essex.” Mrs. Halloran turned easily in her chair and leaned her head back comfortably. “I want to hear how you wasted your youth. Only the scandalous parts.”

“The path gets straighter and narrower all the time,” Essex said. “The years press in. The path becomes a knife edge and I creep along, holding on even to that, the years closing in on either side and overhead.”

“That’s not very scandalous,” Mrs. Halloran said.

“I am afraid,” Aunt Fanny said, “that this young man did not have what we used to call ‘advantages’. Not everyone, Orianna, was fortunate enough to grow up in luxury and plenty. As of course you know perfectly well.”

“The statistics scratch at your eyes,” Essex said. “When I was twenty, and could not see time at all, the chances of my dying of heart disease were one in a hundred and twelve. When I was twenty-five and deluded for the first time by a misguided passion, the chances of my dying of cancer were one in seventy-eight. When I was thirty, and the days and hours began to close in, the chances of my dying in an accident were one in fifty-three. Now I am thirty-two years old, and the path getting narrower all the time, and the chances of my dying of anything at all are one in one.”

“Very profound,” said Mrs. Halloran, “but still not altogether scandalous.”

“Miss Ogilvie,” said Essex, “treasures in an ebony box stolen from the music room and hidden under the handkerchiefs in the top right hand drawer of her dresser the small notes Richard Halloran wrote her four years ago, before, although it is perhaps rude to mention it, he took to his wheel chair. He left one every evening for her, under the big blue cloisonné vase in the main hall.”

“Good heavens,” said Miss Ogilvie, pale. “That could not be what she means by scandal.”

“Do not trouble yourself, Miss Ogilvie,” Mrs. Halloran said, amused. “In his capacity as librarian Essex has become accustomed to spying on all of you. He brings me very entertaining stories, and his information is always accurate.”

“A moment of truth,” said Aunt Fanny tightly. “Coarse and vulgar I said then, and coarse and vulgar I say now.”

“I would not have stayed on—” Miss Ogilvie began with difficulty.

“Of course you would have stayed on. Nothing could have dislodged you; your mistake,” Mrs. Halloran said kindly, “was in supposing you could dislodge me. Aunt Fanny’s mistake, in a word.”

“This is needless and disgusting,” Aunt Fanny said. “Orianna, if I might have your gracious permission to retire?”

“Stay and finish your wine, Aunt Fanny, and Essex will think of more scandalous stories for you.”

“The path gets narrower all the time,” Essex said, grinning. “Does Aunt Fanny remember the evening when she drank Lionel’s birthday champagne and asked me—”

“I believe I am going to be ill,” Aunt Fanny said.

“You have my gracious permission,” Mrs. Halloran said. “Essex, I am not pleased. You must be above suspicion, even if Aunt Fanny is not. Fanny, if you are going to make some demonstration, please get it over with; I want to have my walk before we play backgammon, and my schedule has already been much disturbed today. Miss Ogilvie, have you finished your wine?”

“You are going to play backgammon?” demanded Aunt Fanny, distracted. “Tonight?”

“It is my house now, Aunt Fanny, as you have reminded me. I see no reason why I should not play backgammon in it.”

“Coarse is coarse,” Aunt Fanny said. “This is a house of mourning.”

“I am sure that Lionel would have foregone dying, Aunt Fanny, if he thought his funeral would interfere with my backgammon. Miss Ogilvie, have you finished your wine now?” Mrs. Halloran rose. “Essex?” she said.

_____

The character of the house is perhaps of interest. It stood upon a small rise in ground, and all the land it surveyed belonged to the Halloran family. 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, father to Richard and Aunt Fanny—Frances Halloran she was then—was a man who, in the astonishment of finding himself suddenly extremely wealthy, could think of nothing better to do with his money than set up his own world. His belief about the house, only very dimly conveyed to the architect, the decorators, the carpenters and landscapers and masons and hodcarriers who put it together, 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. The house must be endlessly decorated and adorned, the grounds constructed and tended with exquisite care. There were to be swans on the ornamental lake before the house, and a pagoda somewhere, and a maze and a rose garden. The walls of the house were to be painted in soft colors with scenes of nymphs and satyrs sporting among flowers and trees. There was to be a great deal of silver, a great deal of gold, much in the way of enamel and mother-of-pearl. Mr. Halloran did not care much for pictures, but conceded a certain few to the decorator; he did, however, insist upon one picture...

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