Rich people hide inside their mansion, isolated from the peasant rabble, and there they sit, surrounded by the luxury of generational wealth, waiting for the end of the world…
I re-read this one at the beginning of the pandemic when everyone was stockpiling groceries and TP… and had to laugh when I came to the part in the novel when the characters burn all the books in the library only to fill their shelves with groceries and TP.
Things change, the more they remain the same…
The Sundial is a dark look at human nature, told through the eyes of Shirley Jackson, and one familiar with her personal history as an affluent West Coast debutant-turned bohemian New Yorker transplanted to rural Vermont will understand Jackson’s casting of the villagers as always ‘other’ — a slightly savage force to be endured, while the highly diverse and at times, hilariously misfit, collection of wealthy characters huddled together inside the mansion maintain their rich comforts… even one crowning themselves as leader in the new world.
The darkly hilarious portrayals of wealth and privilege at the expense of the working class are what make Jackson’s work so powerful; this is beyond a preapocalyptic prepping story, this is a story of the self-declared chosen few and their entitlement, which remains truly terrifying.
Shirley Jackson is an American writer, now best known for ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ (as seen on Netflix), the book ‘The Birdcage’ (inspiring the movie ‘Lizzy’) as well as being the subject of the novel ‘Shirley’ (by Susan Scarf Merrell) and the subsequent Netflix show.
Previously overlooked for decades (in spite of the success of ‘The Lottery’), Shirley Jackson seems to have crept into contemporary popular culture.
‘Let Me Tell You’ helps put Shirley Jackson, and her work, in a broader context.
Released in 2015, this compilation of short stories, essays, and other artifacts, including drawings and sketches spans Shirley Jackson’s life (1916 – 1965); and includes some unpublished and uncollected stories, and work from her early period during the war, as well as her lectures on writing in as given to college students her final years.
For the truly devoted Jackson aficionado, this collection offers work you might have not otherwise come across; and for the newcomer to all things Shirley Jackson, it offers very readable stories and essays that span styles and decades – from the warm-hearted family slice of life stories, ‘Honestly Mother’ and ‘Questions I Wish I’d Never Asked’ (about the search for resolution regarding a frozen garden hose), to the eerily unsettling ‘Paranoia’ and ‘Daughter, Come Home’ – this collection brings together Jackson’s mastery of humour, and psychological terror – the fears of identity, social pressure, and relationships – set across quiet suburbs and city blocks.
Edited by her children, Laurence (‘Laurie’ of Savages) Jackson Hyman and Sarah Hyman Dewitt (‘Sally’ of the same), with a forward by literary critic and biographer Ruth Franklin, this collection of short stories brings new insight into the work of Shirley Jackson. I highly recommend it to fans of ‘Savages’ and those familiar with Jackson’s biography.
*disclaimer – Cujo is one of my ALL TIME FAVOURITE BOOKS, and not because I have a Saint Bernard 😉 And yes, this review has spoilers*
Quite frankly, Cujo has it all — intersecting plot lines, absolutely amazing characters*, great pacing, high stakes (never mind the rabid dog, we’re already worried about Vic Trenton’s employment instability and Donna’s affair gone bad), themes of motherhood and sacrifice, as well as poverty, both living with, and fear of are the real boogie men here — Cujo is the kind of book that if you read it a few times, and dissected it thoroughly, you might come to understand what a novel is about.
First up — this is a book about being poor, and how scary being broke with no clear way out of it can be. Vic is about to lose his job, and leaves town to try to rescue it. Donna’s car is misfiring, and she has to take it to a mechanic, preferably the cheapest one possible. Her snack to bring to the garage consists of fridge leftovers (cucumber slices and a few olives), and a thermos of milk. There are no commercially bought foods here, except for the breakfast cereal that her husband brings home — not to be healthy, but because they’re broke. Which leads Donna to taking her old, rundown car to the cheapest garage in the area, Joe Cambers’ place out in the boonies, where, on the ride there Donna passes children standing with ‘their distended potbellies full of worms,’ just another roadside sight in rural Maine.
Vic and Donna Trenton are well-off compared to the Cambers. And, it is Joe Cambers’ wife, Charity, who kicks the whole thing off by winning a local lottery, and taking her son, Brett, to visit her more affluent sister (after essentially bribing her husband for permission to go). Charity wants Brett to see how people of a different social class live, in hopes that he will get an education and leave a life of poverty behind. She makes sure there is enough leftover from the lottery winnings to go toward Brett’s college fund. During Charity’s visit with her sister, a few things rub her the wrong way (such as the rack of credit cards her sister has in her purse, and the ‘show off’ aspect of consumerism), but she consistently tries to do right by her son, showing him different parts of the world, and even staying with a man she despises to give economic stability to her kid.
I’m not going to go through the plot of the rabid Saint Bernard, because most folks know it already (dog chased a rabbit, got bit by a rabid bat, killed some people), and when the Cambers left town, the dog was left behind. Donna and Tad pulled into the Cambers’ place, and they encounter the dog, who at this point was now fully rabid.
Here’s where the ‘closed box’ horror comes in — Donna and Tad are trapped in the broken down car, and stuck in the Cambers’ yard with Cujo. In the heat, for days.
For me, the real sacrifice occurs as Donna tries to make Tad’s last few hours as comfortable as possible, and tries to normalize a terrifying situation for her son’s well being. Her whole rationale in not leaving the car early in the story is her fear of her son watching her get killed by the dog; it is only as the dog weakens that she takes her chance.
And ultimately, it is all in vain, but if that’s not maternal sacrifice, I don’t know what is.
— * re the characters — they are all truly fantastic, because they are so damned real — the mail delivery guy who lifts his leg and farts while driving, the Cambers’ drunken next door neighbour who pisses on a honeysuckle bush — these are the people we know about, and respect because of their honestly, not because they’re really nice people. (Joe Cambers is an abusive @sshole, but he’s not ‘all’ bad.) Stephen King does an excellent job portraying the subtleties of human nature; and for me, that’s where the true horror comes in 😉
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