What a fantastic collection of stories to kick off my 20 Books of Summer Challenge!
Often considered one of the most terrifying stories of the twentieth century, Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery created a sensation when it was first published in 1948. The New Yorker received a record number of complaints about the story ranging from the confused to the outraged. Today it is considered a classic work of short fiction, but is not necessarily indicative of the other stories contained in this collection. What it does have in common with the other twenty – four stories in this collection is a remarkable way of creating tension and suspense out of both the chilling and the ordinary.
Frank O’Connor said that within the short story, ‘there is an intense awareness of human loneliness’. This is particularly true of Shirley Jackson’s stories, which take this loneliness and search for identity and combine it with a sense of tension and suspense to create something irresistibly weird. Her stories explore the nature of identity and competition, fear and paranoia with an air of latent suspense, rather than all out horror. Jackson’s aim appears to be to disquiet the reader, with tales of seemingly ordinary people, often mothers and women starting their careers or family lives.
The stories in this collection can start off in a seemingly ordinary fashion but they often become surreal, suggesting a tension, paranoia or madness taking over. Often the stories lack context or a discernable ending and like Joyce Carol Oates, you are often left with an atmosphere rather than a conclusion. Unsettling as that can be, the stories still feel fated and perfectly formed. The closing line of The Renegade captures this ambiguity perfectly, as a harassed mother wonders what to do about her errant pet dog.
Everything was quiet and lovely in the sunlight, the peaceful sky, the gentle line of the hills. Mrs Walpole closed her eyes and suddenly feeling the harsh hands pulling her down, the sharp points closing in on her throat.
The nature of identity and how we define ourselves is questioned often in this collection. In The Villager, a young woman at a furniture sale poses as the owner of the apartment, while in Like Mother Used to Make, a man feels his identity threatened by a neighbour who messes up his pristine apartment. In Charles, a young boy creates an alter-ego to hide his own bad behaviour and in Trial By Combat a woman is unable to confront the fact that her neighbour is stealing from her when she realises just how alike they really are. This sense of combativeness and competition is never far from the surface and provides some moments of humour in an otherwise tense collection. In A Fine Old Firm, the mothers of two soldiers attempt to outdo the other in their pride for their boys and in Afternoon in Linen a young girl scuppers her mother’s attempts to show off to a friend.
Indeed, children and young people are often exposed as being smarter and more adult-like than they should be. In The Intoxicated a drunk party guest tries to chat to his hosts daughter about homework, only to have her lecture him about the imminent end of the world and The Witch and The Renegade capture that gleeful love of the macabre that children often have. In one story children are described as
Hideous little parodies of adult life
But Jackson shows that often the adults are not much better and is particularly adept at exploring the hypocrisies and snobbery rife in the domestic arena – most notably exploring the effect of racism in Flower Garden.
Some stories do veer more towards the horror that Jackson is known for and explore fear and paranoia, hinting at mental illness or delusional fantasies. In the surreal Pillar of Salt, a New Hampshire housewife sees a much longed for trip to New York descend into mental breakdown to the point where she is unable to cross a road.
She looked longingly at the cigar store on the opposite corner, with her apartment house beyond; she wondered, How do people ever manage to get there?, and knew that by wondering, by admitting a doubt, she was lost.
In the surreal and nightmarish The Tooth, a woman loses her sense of what is reality and what is fantasy after a painful tooth extraction, while in possibly the most nightmarish tale The Daemon Lover, another young woman spends her wedding morning frantically searching for her missing husband-to-be.
This is where Jackson excels, creating a sense of general underlying unease and a feeling that things are about to go horribly wrong, so that even if they don’t, we as readers are still left feeling unsettled and shaky.
Mrs Tyler recognized finally the faint nervous feeling that was tagging her; it was the way she felt when she was irrevocably connected with something dangerously out of control: her car, for instance, on an icy street, or the time on Virginia’s roller skates…
When reading these stories I was filled with that faint nervous feeling and as Dorothy Parker so perfectly described Jackson, she is an “unparalleled leader in the field of beautifully written, quiet, cumulative shudders”.
The centerpiece of the collection The Lottery is an undoubtedly chilling parable about an annual ritual murder in a small New England town, but it doesn’t feel as subversive today as it would have done in 1948. Having said that, it is a perfectly formed and delightfully unsettling story about a town lottery to choose a sacrificial victim for the harvest. Jackson presents it as contemporary realism, but with no context or background, which adds to the isolated and rather surreal atmosphere. Is it horror? Is it social commentary? Is it a response to anti-Semitism? It could be one or all three and the ambiguity only adds to its effectiveness.
Although the villagers had forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box, they still remembered to use stones.
At its core, the story explores the randomness and traditional nature of persecution among mankind and Jackson herself said
I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village to shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.
The best of the stories in this strong collection explore themes of isolation and identity, mental disturbance and random cruelty and rather than presenting the reader with big shocks or frightening climaxes, Jackson is more interested in that sense of prolonged tension that never lets up.
This is a fabulous collection that is more than the sum of its parts with its pervading sense of strangeness and delightful relishing of the odd and the other.
Read On: Kindle
Number Read: 119
20 Books of Summer: 1/20
Number Remaining: 627