Title: The Lottery and Other Stories
Author: Shirley Jackson
Publisher: Penguin Modern Classics
Date: 2009 (1949)
Genre: Horror / Classics / Short Stories
Summary: In these stories an excellent host finds himself turned out of home by his own guests; a woman spends her wedding day frantically searching for her husband-to-be; and in Shirley Jackson’s best-known story, a small farming village comes together for a terrible annual ritual. The creeping unease of lives squandered and the bloody glee of lives lost is chillingly captured in these tales of wasted potential and casual cruelty by a master of the short story.
As this is a review of a collection of short stories, I’ve chosen a few stories that have been haunting me since I read the collection to discuss in detail and then I’ll briefly review the collection as a whole.
After You, My Dear Alphonse
This story is very domestic and doesn’t feature elements of fantasy or the supernatural. Mrs. Wilson hears her son Johnny arrive home with his friend, Boyd, and she invites Boyd to join them for lunch. Boyd is African American and Johnny is, presumably, White but the boys are friends and they act like friends. However, Mrs Wilson begins to question Boyd about his family, making assumptions about his father’s job and judging his mother for not having a job even though she, as pointed out by Johnny, doesn’t have a job either.
Stories about racism are fairly common in American literature from this era but in “After You, My Dear Alphonse” Shirley Jackson reveals that racism isn’t only found in physical violence towards Black Americans as Mrs Wilson is condescending and rude towards this young boy, making assumptions about him and his family based solely upon his race. Jackson reveals the domestic space – a space which is often portrayed as a safe haven – as cruel and harsh. Boyd is not safe in this domestic space and, although Johnny does not share his mother’s views, it is implied that Boyd is not safe in the wider community as it is filled with petty, childish, racist people like Mrs Wilson who are harmful and dangerous even if they are not physically violent.
Comparing this story and “Flower Garden”, another story in the collection, reveals two equally sinister sides to racism. Jackson does a wonderful job at presenting racism as a learned trait (as Johnny does not share the views of his racist mother) and at revealing the sinister nature of the domestic space for those who are unwelcome in such spaces.
I was horrified by this story and every so often my brain likes to say ‘hey, remember that story that was harrowing? do you want to relive your reading experience in excruciating detail and only think about that story for the rest of the day?’. So yeah, it’s safe to say that this particular story has haunted me since I read the collection. To summarise, “The Renegade” tells the story of Mrs Walpole who learns that her dog, Lady, has been accused of killing the neighbour’s chickens. The news follows Mrs Walpole around town as she does her daily activities and each person she encounters suggests a gruesome way of curing the dog of its bloodlust.
It wasn’t particularly gruesome (although there are graphic suggestions of animal abuse from the very beginning) but it was the relentlessness of the story that affected me. The events of “The Renegade” were just piling up and it wouldn’t stop and I felt as harassed as the main character did by the end.
I would normally try to give some detail about the writing style or the themes of the story – like I have with the other two stories – but instead you got my visceral reaction to the story and that’s all I have to offer.
This is the last story in the collection but it is one of Jackson’s most famous short stories.
I don’t want to spoil the plot of the story but here’s a quick summary: “The Lottery” is set in a small, nondescript town with a small population of around 300 people. The lottery is set to begin at 10am and the people of the community, adults and children, gather together. Lists are made, ensuring that everyone who needs to be there is present, and the lottery begins. One family is singled out and ritual chaos ensures.
I think that “The Lottery” is a culmination of the themes explored in the rest of the collection. Jackson combines themes of isolation and domesticity with irony and horror to create a story which reveals the horrors of suburbia. Through this story, she highlights the hypocrisy, brutality, and horror of ‘civilisation’ and Jackson explores the phenomenon of rituals – the lottery is accepted because it is old but, to an outsider, it is a form of unthinkable, senseless horror. Jackson also examines the need to conform in small, rural communities and the story seems to urge readers to reject conformity and senseless, old-fashioned traditions.
“The Lottery” was one of my favourite stories out of the entire collection. It was fantastically written and horrifyingly realistic.
Overall, this is a fantastic collection of overtly and subtly horrifying stories. Jackson was a master at creating an atmosphere of horror and terror within the domestic space and she skilfully leaned into the supernatural and the fantastical when it was needed. I’d highly recommend this collection – especially if you want to sample Jackson’s work and writing style – and I’ll certainly read some of the stories again in the future.
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Read as part of the Classics Club Challenge