Tuesday Terror! The Lottery by Shirley Jackson

Traditional horror…

 

Apparently when Shirley Jackson first published this story in The New Yorker in 1948, readers were so shocked by it that she was sent hate mail. Sound like it ought to be perfect for this week’s…

the lottery

 

Tuesday Terror

The Lottery by Shirley Jackson

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Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson

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The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green.

On this beautiful morning, the people of this typical small town American village gather together to celebrate the annual tradition of the lottery. The tradition goes back so far that no-one really remembers why it began, though Old Man Warner suggests it was originally some kind of ritual to ensure a good harvest. Schools are closed for the summer, so all the kids are there, and neighbours chat cheerfully as they gather in the square. But the behaviour of the boys give an early indication that something a little darker might be going on…

Bobby Martin had already stuffed his pockets full of stones, and the other boys soon followed his example, selecting the smoothest and roundest stones…

Illustration by Anita Stevens Rundles
Illustration by Anita Stevens Rundles

Everyone knows exactly what will happen, but Mr Summers takes charge as he does every year to make sure everything is done fairly and according to the rules. There are only three hundred people in the village, including children, so it won’t take long. As they chat, some mention rumours that other towns and villages have decided to stop running the lottery, but the older folk think that’s foolish – why mess with tradition?

The original paraphernalia for the lottery had been lost long ago, and the black box now resting on the stool had been put into use even before Old Man Warner, the oldest man in town, was born. Mr Summers spoke frequently to the villagers about making a new box, but no one liked to upset even as much tradition as was represented by the black box.

Eventually all is ready, and the man at the head of each family draws a slip of paper from the box. As they wait for Mr Summers to give them the signal to look at the paper, the holiday atmosphere changes to one of tension…

For a minute, no one moved, and then all the slips of paper were opened. Suddenly, all the women began to speak at once, saying, ‘Who is it?’, ‘Who’s got it?’, ‘Is it the Dunbars?’, ‘Is it the Watsons?’.

It turns out it’s the Hutchinsons. Now the atmosphere changes again, as the mother of the family, Tessie Hutchinson, declares the draw was unfair and should be done again. But she meets with little sympathy from her friends or even her family…

‘Be a good sport, Tessie,’ Mrs Delacroix called, and Mrs Graves said, ‘All of us took the same chance.’
‘Shut up, Tessie.’ Bill Hutchinson said.

The next round of the draw begins, to decide which of the Hutchinson family is to be chosen. The father? Young Nancy? Or maybe the little one, Dave, too young to draw without assistance…

Illustration by Monica Garwood
Illustration by Monica Garwood

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This is a chilling little tale which, even as the first story she published, shows some of the techniques Jackson used to great effect in her later work. No gothic ruins or thunderstorms, Jackson’s stories take place in the full glare of summer sunshine and it’s the contrast of the total normality of the people with the sheer craziness of what they are about to do that creates the feeling of menace – of madness. To be honest, I felt it was pretty obvious what was going to happen from the point in the second paragraph when the boys were gathering stones, but that might be because there have been derivatives of this story over the intervening decades.

What interested me more than the story was the fact that it inspired hate mail from contemporary readers. Partly it seems to have been as a result of confusion – a bit like the Orson Welles’ The War of the Worlds thing – with some readers thinking it was a report of real events. But otherwise some of the hate that was hurled at Jackson seems to be wildly over the top for a story which, while well written and effectively horrifying, would be considered relatively mild today. Perhaps in 1948, the horrors of WW2 were too fresh in people’s minds for them to be willing to consider that any group of people can do evil unthinkingly if they blindly follow rules and obey their leaders without question.

The most inappropriate cover ever?
The most inappropriate cover ever?

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Apparently Jackson’s explanation was “I suppose 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.” It appears she may have shocked them even more than she intended.

If you’d like to read the story for yourself, here’s a link. It’s very short – about 3500 words.

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Fretful Porpentine rating: 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:          😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

porpentine 3

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74 thoughts on “Tuesday Terror! The Lottery by Shirley Jackson

  1. My impression has always been that the readers became so incensed because they saw it as an assault on the ‘Murican way of life, suggesting that everything in those sweet old small towns wasn’t apple pie and bobby sox.

    In reality, of course, it was things like racial intimidation and lynch mobs, but many Americans don’t like having this sort of nasty truth pointed out to them.

    • I had viewed it more as something timeless and existential, but you’re right, American audiences might be particularly prone to recoil, thanks the the regionalist patina of the story, the particular skeletons in the American closet, and pragmatic American resistance to such abstract European philosophies like existentialism.

      • I do think there’s something particularly American about the reaction to it – more so then than now, but America always has that air of thinking itself above the common herd of humanity… much like the Scots, in fact! 😉

    • Yes, I suspect you may be right. It’s… amusing how so many countries think they’re better than everyone else. Of course, we Scots know we are, so we can laugh at everyone else 😉 But seriously, yes, especially in that era I don’t think America had begun to face up to any of its own less savoury aspects…

    • Yes, indeed! I wonder if she toned it down a bit in later stories – I don’t remember either Hill House or We Have Always Lived in the Castle being quite so blatantly provocative. Maybe she had just become more subtle…

  2. Jackson story might function as a bridge from the horror of WW2 to something more timeless and existential, lifting the veil on the brutality and irrationality that lies at the very core of human life. The more deftly you write that up, the better your hate mail will be 🙂

    • Haha! The review originally had a paragraph in it much to that effect, and mentioning that America may not be as immune as it thinks, but I decided to remove it in case I got some hate mail of my own… 😉

    • Interestingly nearly every review of this on Goodreads is from a Hunger Games fan – I haven’t read or watched it, so didn’t make the connection. Haha! A lot of the younger HG fans seem to think The Lottery is the recycled version – and what’s with them that they can’t write a review without copious use of the f-word?! Kids today, eh? *shakes head sadly and toddles off to the old folks home*

      • Haha! Don’t kids know repeated use of swears dilutes​ the impact? But they are correct… This sounds like it’s right out of HG. In fact, they could have called HG The Lottery. But Hunger Games has more panache, title-wise. Now I’m going to write my own f-in* review!

        (Note: f is for flippin’ as in summersaults)

        • Haha! When I worked at the school I used to promise the boys a cash bonus if they could come up with a swear word I hadn’t heard a thousand times before. Needless to say, the prize went unclaimed… 😉

  3. Here in North America this story is read so often, several times in grade school, again in university, that it is often the only short story someone knows if they are not a reader. It does begin to take on the tone of “not again…” – you only have the magic of reading it once unfortunately.

    • I had never even heard of Shirley Jackson till I started reading blogs – she just doesn’t seem to have crossed over here much. So this was actually the first time I read the story. I agree – the shock factor really only works once…

  4. Oddly enough, I’ve yet to read anything by Shirley Jackson (shameful, I know), but her name keeps cropping up across the blogs I follow. Probably because we’re in the midst of Halloween season. Anyway, thanks for an intriguing review – I’ve bookmarked the story to read later in the week. 🙂

    • I was just remarking to another commenter that I’d never come across her till I started reading blogs – for some reason, she just doesn’t seem to be very well known over here. But I do very strongly recommend her We Have Always Lived in the Castle – a brilliantly subversive take on the gothic horror/fairytale story. 🙂

  5. Oh, FictionFan, this is one of my absolute top classic horror stories. Even though it doesn’t take much to divine what’s going to happen, it still draws you into the gathering menace. Jackson does it purely psychologically, too – our imaginations do the work. I really like that about her work.

    • It’s a good’un, isn’t it? It’s the way she uses that contrast with normality that makes her menace so effective – something she uses again and again. As soon as she starts talking about sunshine, you know she’s got something scary just waiting for you in the shadows! And yes, she cuts off at just the right point – no need to spell the whole thing out…

    • She’s great at putting these unforgettable ideas into your head, isn’t she? That’s what I feel about We Have Always Lived in the Castle, too – Merricat is such a great creation…

  6. I remember reading this story when I had my Shirley Jackson “phase”- a very long time ago, I was still living at home – and what I always wondered was whether Mrs Hutchinson had protested any other year. I do see the similarity to the Hunger games, except that the Chosen One at least had a chance, which no-one had here.

    • Yeah, I doubt it – she seemed quite happy about the whole thing till the results were known! I think we should make the National Lottery work like this – so much more exciting!

  7. Just had to take a moment from packing. (Wait until I post a photo of my boxed books!) This story chilled me, even as a kid. I still find it quite a cautionary tale. That cover is unbelievable. Yikes!

    • Yes, it’s a goodie! (Haha! Can’t wait – hope you haven’t accidentally packed the camera!) It’s incredible, isn’t it? Bet it sold loads of copies though… 😉

  8. Ah, the ever marvellous Ms Jackson, whose pen is sharp as a laser, and whose barbs are neatly poisoned, and hit the mark, producing a satisfying mix of shiver and nasty snicker. She is so amusingly spiteful. And provides a masterclass in doing chill with style.

  9. This is such a high school classic short story in my part of the world, it’s easy to forget how creepy it is. (And that cover makes absolutely no sense. Did I miss the demon lover in my reading?)

    • She just doesn’t seem to be very well known over here at all – which is quite good actually, since it means I’m getting to read all of her stuff for the first time! (Haha! I know – I couldn’t work that out either – but I bet it sold loads and loads of copies… 😉 )

  10. Ooh, I remember reading this one — and coming away pretty horrified. To take such an outwardly pleasant sunny day and describe something most of us would recoil at is brilliant, you know. I was thinking along the lines of DesertDweller in that Hunger Games immediately came to my mind. We authors like to think we’re being original, but really, the best we can say is that we’re either adept or woefully inept at retelling the same tales!!

    • Yes, that’s what I think she’s so brilliant at – getting horror into situations that seem so normal. It’s all done with psychology really rather than clanking chains and creaking doors. Her horror is always very human! Ha! Yes, I doubt there are many original stories left to be told – the best anyone can hope for – writer or reader – is that they get told in original ways… 🙂

    • I hope you enjoyed it! I prefer this kind of human horror to ghosties and zombies and vampires, to be honest. Because this is something that you can actually imagine happening…

    • Oh, I hope that goes well! It’s one of those ones that, though it’s short, there’s loads that could be discussed about it. Yes, I love the way her stories don’t rely on the usual horror stuff of ghosts or gore to create her effect… 🙂

    • It does, doesn’t it? In fact, though it’s a great little story, it actually seems quite mild to me in comparison to what’s in lots of the books we all read now – horror or otherwise.

  11. I first read it when I was in college (never mind when) in a lit class. I was blown away. Surely nothing like that could really happen. Later I discovered that it happens all of the time.

  12. Oh my word! You are so right about that inappropriate cover! Good grief! I guess they thought sex would sell. 😦

    I read this in high school. Loved it! I reread it a few years ago for my grad program. Creepy like an episode of Twilight Zone.

    • It’s incredible isn’t it? And you have to think that anyone attracted by that cover woud be so disappointed in the story! 😉

      It really is creepy – I think the way she uses daylight and normality works much better than midnight and clanking chains on the whole…

  13. What a cool story, in fact! I agree with Linda a bit. It is like a Twilight Zone in a way. Very remarkable she got hate mail. I’m thinking she should be proud of that, though. Not every author gets hate mail. Well maybe they do.

    She looks like the perfect author with those glasses, you must admit.

    • It is – it’s the contrast between the normality of the people and the horror of what they’re about to do that makes it work. Haha! I hope they don’t but I think they probably think ripios are just as bad… *wicked face*

      She looks too innocent to have such fiendish thoughts…

  14. Oh, i love The Lottery. I read it years ago in an anthology of the top 100 American short stories and was totally taken by surprise. I also read about the hate mail too, its as if the readers felt duped, but that’s what good writing is all about, tricking a reader into believing a fiction is true, but for all the right reasons. Isn’t it? I also love her attitude towards writing which was not in the least bit pretentious. She said of it, “it is great fun and I love it. For one thing, it’s the only way I can get to sit down … And there is pleasure in seeing a story grow … It’s so deeply satisfying–like having a winning streak at poker.” This is my kind of writer 😉 Another short story I can’t praise enough is How Far She Went by Mary Hood. If you come across it, you may enjoy it 🙂

    • Yes, I can’t quite understand why people would be aggrieved by being taken by surprise by a horror story in particular – isn’t that kind of the point? I suppose she could have finished it by giving the ‘winner’ a bottle of champagne, but I feel that wouldn’t have worked quite so well somehow… 😉 Ha! That’s a great quote, and I do like it when writers enjoy their work – so many of them seem to complain about how hard it all is, leaving me often feeling well, don’t do it then! I shall seek that one out… thanks for the recommendation! 🙂

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