Rarely does anyone think of The New Yorker magazine as a place to go to get a quick fix of horror fiction. And yet in 1948 that well-respected magazine published just such a story, which caused great controversy and stirred up a tremendous amount of hate mail. It also was the cause of numerous readers cancelling subscriptions.
The story was published during a time when many town governments across America sponsored weekly cash-prize lotteries as a means of bringing people into town from the surrounding farms to stimulate the postwar economy for the local merchants. The name of the story was, of course, “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. You may read (or more likely re-read) it here.
Many high school students (and I was one) suffered through a great deal of moaning and gnashing of teeth trying to eke out the symbolism underlying a story that described the seemingly ordinary day, which was a celebration of sorts of an annual occurrence in that small village of less than three hundred people. It is only in the final paragraphs that the reader realizes what is happening. What does the premise say about our society? What does it say about human nature?
Born in 1919, Shirley Jackson attended Syracuse University where she met and married author and literary critic, Stanley Edgar Hyman. In the early years of her marriage, Jackson found little time to write but eventually began to publish short stories, one of her earliest and best known stories, “Come Dance With Me in Ireland,” also published in The New Yorker, was included in the collection Best American Stories:1944. Although that story focused on the crude lack of kindness that invades human interaction, it lacked the terror found in much of her later work.
Her early novels, including The Road Through the Wall (1948), Hangsaman (1951), and The Bird’s Nest (1954) delve deeply into the minds and lives of disturbed adolescents. And madness remains a theme explored again in The Sundial (1958), which depicts a family whose members have crossed into insanity as they await the end of the world.
Perhaps the most well known and well remembered of Jackson’s novels is We Have Always Lived in the Castle published in 1962, just three years before her death. In this novel, the gothic theme of how people treat those who are perceived to be “different” is palpable, as is the theme of the limits of female self-determination in society at that time. The fact that four family members have been poisoned before the book opens is always in the background but is clearly related to the present torment by the remaining family members at the hands of the villagers. Jackson does not allow any excuse for such vile behavior by the villagers. The entire book is both riveting and haunting.
Obsessed as Jackson was with person to person evil, nearly everything that she wrote had a crime component. She was nominated for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allan Poe Award for “Louisa, Please Come Home” in 1961 and she won the Edgar in 1966 for “The Possibility of Evil”—two short stories, both of which show two very different ways in which private loneliness influences the actions of the main character.
If you have never read anything by Shirley Jackson, other than perhaps a high school reading of “The Lottery,” I suggest you take the time to do so, slowly and carefully. Her work has survived the decades.
Terrie Farley Moran’s recent collection of short stories, THE AWARENESS and other deadly tales, is currently available in e-format for the Nook and the Kindle. Terrie blogs at Women of Mystery and her short story “Fontaine House” can be read in the August 2012 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.
Read all posts by Terrie Farley Moran for Criminal Element.