Marie’s Reading: “The Sundial” by Shirley Jackson

sundialThe Halloran family has gathered in their crumbling ancestral mansion for a funeral.  One morning Aunt Fanny has a vision wherein her long-dead father gives her the exact date of the end of the world.  If the Hallorans stay in their family manse, they will be the sole survivors and inheritors of a bright clean world.

As you read, you wonder why these people deserve it.

Given the subject, it seems odd to say that The Sundial is one of Shirley Jackson’s funnier novels.  It’s like You Can’t Take It With You with the apocalypse instead of the IRS.  Also, this family is full of rather mean people who hate one another rather than a kooky assortment of loving individuals.  Oh, and there’s also the probable murder and unsettling open ending. But really, it’s funny, in a character-based screwball comedy kind of way.

I had my pick of fantastically weird cover art for this one, and I chose my favorite because I think it reflects the core of the story: a dysfunctional family trapped together in an old house, bouncing off one another, and waiting for doomsday.  Jackson always did oppressive atmosphere very well, and it’s approaching Hill House levels at the Halloran mansion.  But, as I said, with some levity.  There is a note of discord about this one, where it maybe doesn’t quite know what it wants to be–but somehow all the pieces make a delightfully odd whole.

The Sundial reflects a lot of Shirley Jackson’s interest in the occult, from divination to doomsday to symbols.  And, as ever, her fascination with the intricacies of small-town life, from the villagers to the odd old family on the hill in their suffocating Gothic home.

Weird fiction fans, give this one a look!




Halloween Read: “Through the Woods: Stories” by Emily Carroll

I first became acquainted with Carroll’s work when I followed a link to her website a couple of Halloweens ago.  The link was to a creepy comic about guilt and murder called His Face All Red.


That comic appears along with four others in her collection of horror comics, Through the Woods.


All of Carroll’s horror comics have the feel of dark fairy tales.  There are abandoned children, mysterious strangers, dangerous husbands, vengeful ghosts, and monsters in the woods.  Every piece is shrouded in mystery and a sense of foreboding.  Her art evokes small villages of bygone eras, with lots of stark whites, deep blacks, and startling blood reds.

My particular favorite in this collection is the Bluebeard-esque story of a young bride who uncovers a grisly secret in her new husband’s house.  It’s called A Lady’s Hands Are Cold, and I found it terrifically creepy and incredibly well-told–the art and script work perfectly together, and the sense of place is fantastic.  It’s visibly gory and has several beautiful Gothic touches.  It’s a perfect dark, gruesome fairy tale.

A Lady’s Hands are Cold

If you enjoy old-fashioned horror, give Emily Carroll’s work a look!  And be sure to visit her website for more.  While you’re there, check out Out of Skin.  You’re welcome in advance for the nightmares.


26 Books to Read in 2015: #22

Reading Challlenge Item 22: A book with pictures! The new collection of Shirley Jackson’s work has delightful pictures–namely, little stick-figure cartoons drawn by the author.

Let Me Tell You

They're all like this.  Love the hair especially.
One of Jackon’s sketches, found in the linked New Yorker article.  They’re all like this. Love the hair especially.

Shirley Jackson was a prolific writer.  She gave us the classic short story The Lottery, first published in The New Yorker in 1948.  Jackson also wrote the famous tale of ghosts and madness, The Haunting of Hill House, as well as my personal favorite, We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

Much of Jackson’s work deals with paranoia and disconnect.  She also loved a good twist or surprise ending.  Jackson’s writings have a Gothic sensibility–dark and uneasy, sometimes dealing with secrets and buried crimes, unsure footing all the way through for the characters and the reader.  The Lottery, about a small-town with a strange ritual, is a bit on the rare side for how shocking it is.  Most of the time, Jackson prefers to go for suggestion, and for creepiness and oddities occurring just outside your field of vision.

Something I learned by reading this collection is that Jackson also had the ability to be hilarious. In addition to her darker and more twisty pieces, she also wrote many articles about her children and being a housewife. Life Among the Savages is a good collection of these.  All the time Jackson was writing, she was also raising four kids and taking care of a huge old farmhouse in Vermont.  Her pieces about family dinners, doing the dishes, and the mystery of who left the hose on the front lawn to freeze are all sweet, very funny, and very entertaining.  Also easy to relate to if you too spend a lot of time washing dishes while drafting stories in your head.

Shirley Jackson with her children
Shirley Jackson with her children in 1956, photographed by Erich Hartmann.

Let Me Tell You also includes a few of Jackson’s lectures about being a writer, and it’s great fun to read about the way she worked and also the way she viewed her fiction.  The glimpse into her process is enlightening–I especially liked the anecdote about how she came up with The Lottery while taking one of her kids on a walk around the neighborhood.  I also really loved how a sense of good-natured intelligence and a cozy sort of weird streak shine through in some of her pieces.

While this might not be the best introduction to Jackson’s work, if you’re already a fan you’ll find a lot to like.  If you are new to her and want to dip in a toe, start with The Lottery and Other Stories.


Marie’s Reading: “The Quick” by Lauren Owen

quickIn my review of The Girl With All The Gifts I expressed some good-natured disbelief about how zombies are still A Thing.  Imagine my surprise, then, to come across the new novel The Quick only to find that vampires are still A Thing.  As with The Girl With All the Gifts, I don’t think I’m spoiling anything to let you know vampires are involved.  It’s revealed pretty early on.

I guess vampires are harder to kill than zombies.  Particularly when they’re so debonair.  And belong to a club.

Now that the affectionate ribbing is out of the way, I can tell you that I enjoyed this novel immensely.  It’s got great characters, a nice pace, some swell action scenes, and on top of all that it’s a very well-done  piece of historical fiction.

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Marie’s Reading: “The Asylum” by John Harwood

the asylumI cannot give you a better teaser of a summary for The Asylum than the one provided on the dust jacket, so here it is:

Confused and disoriented, Georgina Ferrars awakens in a small room in Tregannon House, a private asylum in a remote corner of England. She has no memory of the past few weeks. The doctor, Maynard Straker, tells her that she admitted herself under the name Lucy Ashton the day before, then suffered a seizure. When she insists he has mistaken her for someone else, Dr. Straker sends a telegram to her uncle, who replies that Georgina Ferrars is at home with him in London: “Your patient must be an imposter.”

From there we are with Georgina (or the woman who believes she is Georgina), as she attempts to make sense of her situation.  We share her confusion and fear, as well as the desire to know the truth about her circumstances and identity.   Discovering the truth, we soon come to realize, hinges upon finding a writing box, a series of letters, and a brooch.  I don’t want to give too much away, as uncovering the many intricate plot points are most of the fun of reading this novel.  Suffice it to say that letters are found, secrets are uncovered, and the ending, while not shocking, is certainly a surprise!

If this all sounds like something straight from the pages of a dark, Gothic, melodramatic Victorian thriller, that’s because it is.  More or less.  As I discussed in my gushing review of Harwood’s other novel, The Seance, the mood Harwood creates is perfect.  The sense of time and place is superb, and Harwood really excels at writing in the style of a late Victorian novelist without it coming across as parody or over-the-top.   Not only are you absorbed into the textured world of late 19th century London and the cold, dreary asylum in Cornwall, you also get the sense that you are truly reading a story of the period.

There are striking similarities between Asylum and Sarah Waters’ novels Affinity and Fingersmith.  I’d suggest either of those books if you enjoyed Asylum.  They share the same style, atmosphere, and Gothic tone, as well as strong female protagonists.  In fact, the plot is almost identical to Fingersmith in a few places, though the resolution is quite different.  For a more modern Gothic novel, with the same sense of mystery and secrets, Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale might be a good choice.

If you like twists and turns but aren’t into the Victorian setting and atmosphere, try Gone Girl or Dark Places by Gillian Flynn for modern thrillers that boast great twists, plenty of dark secrets, and loads of suspense.  Her books are darker, more intense, and at times more violent, but still work as read-alikes, I think.


Marie’s Reading: “The Secret Keeper” by Kate Morton

secret keeperI’ve failed my third-grade level Language Arts assignment.  Three times I have tried and three times I have failed to summarize Kate Morton’s latest novel, The Secret Keeper, in a coherent paragraph.  It’s a hard storyline to describe succinctly, because it’s not just storyline.  There are a million storylines going at once with a bajillion characters inhabiting them.

I might be embellishing just a tad.  Find Amazon’s description, my thoughts, and read-alikes after the jump.Read More »