Hangsaman, The Bird’s Nest, and The Sundial by Shirley Jackson

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Reviewed by Simon Thomas

You can more or less divide readers’ familiarity with Shirley Jackson’s works into separate levels.  Of course, the broadest (particularly here in the UK) are those poor unfortunates to whom the name ‘Shirley Jackson’ means nothing, but in the US (so I am told) her chilling short story ‘The Lottery’ is required reading in most high schools.  Perhaps petrified, many people leave it at that.  Progressing to the next level, her brilliant gothic-inspired novels We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House (on which the film The Haunting was based) have a devoted following.  Move one step further up, and to the other end of the cosiness spectrum, and you will find those (like me) who besottedly adore Jackson’s domestic fiction/memoirs Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons – which, ironically, have somewhat spookier titles than some of her scariest fiction.

And what if you have all of those under your belt?  The likelihood is, in the UK at least, that you could go no further. Shirley Jackson’s first four novels: The Road Through the Wall (1948), Hangsaman (1951), The Bird’s Nest (1954), and The Sundial (1958) were almost impossible to buy at an affordable price, and I can’t have been the only person who hankered mournfully after them.  Well, heap blessings upon Penguin, because they have now brought out all four of these to match their editions of other Jackson novels, each with stunning and slightly creepy covers.  I’m going to write about three of them here, because (ahem) I haven’t read The Road Through the Wall yet.  Long story short, they are brilliant – and add to my belief that Shirley Jackson is one of very best American novelists of the 20th century.

I’d often wondered what could connect the writer who used ghostly hands and mass poisonings with the writer who found the witty charm in moving house or going to a Little League game.  Well, these novels fill that gap.  They are more domestic than her scary books, and scarier than her domestic books – offering a perfect balance of both.


Hangsaman tells the story of young college girl Natalie Waite, who leaves her family to go and study; an experience which leaves her rather bewildered and questioning the new identity she must form.  If that were it, it would be a fairly traditional campus novel, but Jackson unsettles us from the start.  One of the first scenes see Natalie hand over her notebook to her father (a writer), who carefully and callously analyses her writing, praising and censuring in turn.  Then we discover that she has been instructed to write a detailed description of him.  Her relationship with her neurotic mother is no easier, but it is an incident at a garden party – where she appears to have been molested by a guest, although Jackson gives no details – which exposes the darkness of the novel.

Slowly she knew she was sick; her head ached, she was dizzy, she loathed her hands as they came toward her face to cover her eyes. “Nothing happened,” she chanted, “nothing happened, nothing happened, nothing happened, nothing happened.”

“Nothing happened,” she said, looking at the window, at the dear lost day.  “I don’t remember.”

It isn’t dwelt on – indeed, as Natalie represses it from her mind, so Jackson represses it from the narrative – but the reader can’t help but feel it influences all that follows.  The four-page description of the college’s history is a rare spot of laugh-out-loud humour in the novel (Jackson’s husband was a college professor, and you can sense she is enjoying satirising the scholastic world), but soon afterwards we are immersed in the awkwardness and isolation Natalie feels.

What makes Hangsaman both disturbing and interesting is its discussions of identity – always a fluid entity, but in Jackson’s hands it is so subjective as to be an enemy to the mind.  From the beginning of the novel, Natalie lives a dual life – dramatising conversations with an anonymous, aggressive, and yet clearly attractive detective – but even this duality begins to collapse in on itself.

Suppose, for instance, that all of this, from the day she could first remember (running through the grass, calling, “Daddy? Daddy?”), suppose it had all been no more than a split second of time, as in a dream, perhaps under an anaesthetic; suppose that after this split second when her wandering mind fancied she was someone named Natalie Waite, that then she should wake up, bemused at first, and speaking thickly, and not really quite sure of her surroundings and the nurse bending over her and the voices saying, “There, now, it wasn’t so bad, was it?” and suppose, waking, she should turn out to be someone else, someone real as Natalie was not?  An old woman, perhaps, with a year or so to live, or a child having its tonsils removed, or a woman with twelve children having a charity operation, or a man.  And, waking, looking around the white room and at the clean nurse, she could say, “I had the funniest dream all this time; I dreamed I was Waitalie Nat” – the dream already fading, and not complete – and the nurse could easily say, “Everyone has dreams under ether,” moving capably forward with a thermometer.

So it continues… If I’m going to have space to write about the other two novels, I shall have to be brief – and I haven’t even mentioned the curious and damaging relationship Natalie has with her teacher and his fragile ex-student wife.  Well, the narrative unravels towards the end – deliberately so – and Natalie takes a trip away from the college that gets increasingly baffling.  It’s all done very skilfully by Jackson, and her tone cleverly makes the reader feel increasingly claustrophobic and unnerved, without often giving grounds for this feeling…

The Bird’s Nest

Identity is an even more dangerous entity in The Bird’s Nest (1954) – which is decades ahead of its time, being about dissociative identity disorder (also known as multiple personality disorder). The title comes from a nursery rhyme:

Elizabeth, Beth, Betsy, and Bess
All went together to find a bird’s nest.
They found a bird’s nest with five eggs in it.
Each took one and left four in it.

The nursery rhyme trickery is, of course, that all four names are variants of ‘Elizabeth’, and thus refer to the same person.  Jackson – in her way – takes the domestic and distorts it.

The novel starts with Elizabeth – reticent, uncharismatic, a little moody – who is experiencing headaches, insomnia, and occasional black-outs. With the help of Dr. Wright, it quickly becomes apparent that Elizabeth is only one personality amongst many – and the others become increasingly dominant. There is sweet, gentle Beth; feisty, selfish Betsy; airs-and-graces Bess. Much of the novel is given from the perspective of Dr. Wright, debating his dealings with these personas, and pondering how to bring them all together into one being. Other chapters are from the perspective of one of the four personalities – but towards the end of the novel these chop and change so quickly that it’s more or less a hotchpotch of different points of view.

And that’s a problem Shirley Jackson encounters occasionally. It’s difficult enough to keep one protagonist consistent throughout a novel – four incarnations must be a nightmare. The most obviously shifting is Beth, who starts as an ideal of Elizabeth, kind and sweet – by the end she weeps at the slightest provocation, and forever moans that nobody likes her. Betsy, contrarily, becomes much more likeable as the novel progresses. But these changes do not materially affect the novel – nor diminish the fact that, though inaccurate, The Bird’s Nest is impressively prescient about multiple personality disorder. The condition was not officially medically recognised until 1980 – this novel was published in 1954. It is a bit fanciful about the interaction of the various personalities, but the patient’s symptoms do match many of those discussed in the Wikipedia article on the subject… so, unless the person who created that article used The Bird’s Nest as their sole source text, I’m quite impressed.

However, it is probably the least successful of the three novels I’m discussing today, which is why I have given it the least space. As a novel of scientific interest by an excellent writer, The Bird’s Nest is well worth reprinting – but it does not show Jackson’s superb narrative capabilities to their fullest. That accolade must be reserved for The Sundial, which is an astonishing achievement.

The Sundial

Shirley Jackson often writes about houses, whether with fondness or fear, and a house looms large in The Sundial (1958).  Indeed, it is mentioned in the first line: ‘After the funeral they came back to the house, now indisputably Mrs. Halloran’s.’  She is married to the old, wheelchair-using, mostly insensible Mr. Halloran, and the other occupants of the house are her stepchildren, step-grandchildren, and the like (not to mention Essex, a man ‘hired to catalogue the books in the library’, but evidently hired for quite another purpose in the bedroom.)  Despite the vastness of the house and its grounds, there is a sense of claustrophobia from the outset, with characters falling over one another, animosity and sniping all round.  It’s like an Ivy Compton-Burnett novel, but with one very significant twist…

Aunt Fanny, a nervous, put-upon maiden aunt, has a sort of vision where the garden she knows is transformed into a mist of confusion.  Whilst running along paths, encountering the sundial (with its curious inscription, ‘What is this world?’), and getting lost in the fog, she is spoken to by her dead father – who warns her that the world will shortly end in fire and floods, and that only people in the house will be saved.

It is at this point that Jackson introduces her masterstroke, which not only allows the novel to continue but makes it such a brilliant mix of tension and humour: everyone believes Aunt Fanny, and nobody seems particularly bothered.  That is to say, they’re keen to survive, but ultimately not troubled by the impending doom of civilisation.

“Humanity, as an experiment, has failed.”
“Well, I’m sure I did the best I could,” Maryjane said.
“Do you understand that this world will be destroyed? Soon?”
“I just couldn’t care less,” Maryjane said. “Unless they save a special thunderbolt for her.”

‘Her’, here, is Mrs. Halloran – Maryjane being her disgruntled stepdaughter-in-law, recent widow, and mother to Fancy – a young girl whom Maryjane encourages to dwell upon murderous plots.  And Mrs. Halloran is a woman who would richly invite murder – she immediately takes charge, lays down rules for a post-apocalyptic world (essentially: no fun), and threatens to throw her dependents out of the house.  Yet they must all stay there.  The house is both sanctuary and prison.  When you know that Shirley Jackson suffered from severe agoraphobia, you begin to understand how she makes this image so powerful.

The rest of the novel is concerned with the household’s preparation for the impending fire-and-brimstone.  It was such a clever decision to have the characters accept the truth of Aunt Fanny’s hysterical claim, as it would – of course – not stand up to a moment’s genuine scepticism, and The Sundial would be much weaker if this belief wavered. Maryjane’s unconcern is a hundred times funnier when it comes with absolute belief, rather than stemming from rationality.

And, oh, this is a funny novel.  Jackson uses the wry and hyperbolic observations of her domestic memoirs alongside the slightly creepy atmosphere necessarily created by the apocalypse.  Here is the introduction of one boisterous character:

Mrs. Willow was a large and overwhelmingly vocal woman, with a great bosom and an indefinable air of having lost some vital possession down the front of it, for she shook and trembled and regarded herself with such enthusiasm that it was all the casual observer could do at first to keep from offering to help.  Whatever she had lost and was hoping to recover, it was not her good humour, for that was unlosable, and seemed, in fact, as much a matter of complete insensitivity as of good spirits; Mrs. Willow was absolutely determined to be affable, and would not be denied.

My favourite scenes are those where the house is visited by a group who are also preparing for the end – they even have a precise date in mind.  This group have largely been shunned by the world, and both factions are suspicious of the other’s claim to be the chosen survivors – and, oh, it’s glorious, as they discuss, dead-pan, the predictions and conclusions they have come to.  My favourite character in this part is doommonger Mrs. Peterson, who interjects frequently.

“All hope is hopeless,” Mrs. Peterson pointed out, “all striving vain.”

Admittedly one problem with the novel, which these scenes contribute to, is that it certainly has too many characters – many of whom appear on the scene briefly and/or coincidentally.  Two sets of relatives turn up out of the blue, and other characters traipse on and off the stage – and the house was already well-stocked with characterful people at the beginning.  Jackson seems to bring more folk into the novel whenever she feels a bit bored, and the result is a little dizzying.  More economy, and perhaps a tighter sense of progression in the narrative (which has some curious diversions) might have made The Sundial even more of a success – or perhaps it might have lost some of its richness and madness by going that route? Who can say?

I shan’t spoil whether or not the end of the world does come, or how the novel ends, but I will say what a joy the journey was.  It’s an outrage that Shirley Jackson’s novels – and The Sundial in particular – have ever gone out of print.  I’ve now read all but one of her books, and I think this one might just be her best, combining barbed wit, gothic disquiet, and that one exceptionally innovative central idea.  Thank you, Penguin, for making sure we can read all three of these interesting reprints – but thank you mostly for The Sundial.

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Simon is one of the Shiny editors.