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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The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

the haunting of hill houseThings that go bump in the night…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Hill House has a reputation for ghostly goings-on – so much so that even the servants won’t stay around after dark. So it’s the ideal place for Dr John Montague to carry out an investigation into supernatural manifestations. He collects together a little group of strangers – selected because they have had previous experiences of strange happenings, and they all set off to spend the summer living in the house. The third-person narrative is told entirely from the viewpoint of Eleanor, who has recently lost the mother she has spent years caring for, and it’s not long before the reader becomes aware that Eleanor is a rather disturbed and fragile young woman. And, as a narrator, intensely unreliable.

“No,” Theodora said, and they heard the crash against the door across the hall. It was louder, it was deafening, it struck against the door next to them (did it move back and forth across the hall? did it go on feet along the carpet? did it lift a hand to the door?), and Eleanor threw herself away from the bed and ran to hold her hands against the door. “Go away,” she shouted wildly. “Go away, go away!”

hill house

The question is – is the house haunting Eleanor, or is Eleanor haunting the house? How much of what we are told can we believe? Shirley Jackson is great at suddenly shifting perspective and turning everything on its head, and in this one she uses Eleanor’s seeming descent into madness to confuse and misdirect. The book begins as almost a traditional gothic horror, only with a typical Jackson twist in that it is all taking place in summer with the sun shining, which I found reminiscent of how she subverted the gothic tradition in her later (and better, in my opinion) book, We Have Always Lived in the Castle. We have doors that close by themselves, strange noises in the night, blood-spattered rooms, half-seen creatures glanced sideways. We also have a twist on the old gothic servitor in the shape of the servants, the Dudleys, who provide a much-needed touch of humour with their lugubrious and sinister warnings. The house, we are told, was deliberately designed as a kind of trick with odd angles and slightly sloping floors, and with the rooms laid out almost as a labyrinth, leading in and out of each other, so that nothing is quite as would be expected. And this is how the story develops too – nothing feels quite linear about it; each time we think we know the characters, they suddenly shift slightly and we are thrown off kilter, perpetually unsettled.

“God God,” Eleanor said, flinging herself out of bed and across the room to stand shuddering in a corner, “God God – whose hand was I holding?”

hill house 2

It’s in the middle section of the book that we realise that Eleanor’s viewpoint can’t be relied on, but she’s all we’ve got to go on. Eleanor has never felt that she was wanted anywhere and sees the summer at Hill House as a way to become different – to fit in. At first it seems she’s succeeding – she and the other young woman, Theodora, strike up an immediate intimacy and Eleanor even harbours hopes that Luke, the sole young man, is falling for her. Dr Montague becomes like a father figure to them all. But soon paranoia sets in – or is it real? – as Eleanor feels she’s being excluded from the group, treated differently – and frighteningly, the increasingly threatening disturbances in the house seem to be centred on her too. But as her relationships with the group spiral downwards, Eleanor has a growing feeling that, in some way, she belongs to the house.

It is so cold, Eleanor thought childishly; I will never be able to sleep again with all this noise coming from inside my head; how can these others hear the noise when it is coming from inside my head? I am disappearing inch by inch into this house, I am going apart a little bit at a time because all this noise is breaking me; why are the others frightened?

eleanor

Jackson is brilliant at creating atmosphere and there are parts of the book that are creepy in the extreme. She uses the power of suggestion to leave much of the work up to the reader – a bit like Room 101, Hill House is a place where each person will find his or her own greatest fears. She describes the terror but often leaves the cause to the imagination. There was a point midway where I could genuinely feel the hairs rising on the back of my neck. For me, the end section fell away rather – as it became more confused as to what was real and what was Eleanor’s imagination, somehow the scare factor diminished. But it still remained an excellent and disturbing examination of madness – from the inside – and perfect reading material for the spooky season.

“So there won’t be anyone around if you need help,” Mrs Dudley said. “We couldn’t hear you, even in the night. No one could.”

“All right now?” Theodora asked, and Eleanor nodded.

“No one lives any nearer than the town, No one else will come any nearer than that…In the night,” Mrs Dudley said. She smiled. “In the dark,” she said, and closed the door behind her.

Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson

Happy Hallowe’en!

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Thanks to Cathy at 746 Books for the brilliant review that prompted me to read this. And you’ll find another great one over at the blog of my old mucker, Lady Fancifull.

Images are stills from the 1963 film of the book, The Haunting, directed by Robert Wise.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

“Something wicked this way comes…”

I had intended to review a short story by Susan Hill today, but by half-way through this book, it was clear it had to be this week’s…

Tuesday Terror!

Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!

we have always lived in the castleWith all the charm and tripping lightness of a fairy dance, Shirley Jackson lures the unsuspecting reader through an enchanted garden into a world of insanity, witchery and murder. The author has taken the elements of Gothic and turned them on their heads, creating a world where the sun shines so brightly that it’s only gradually the reader feels the chill seeping into her bones. No ruined mediaeval castle filled with cobwebby gloom here – this castle is a lovely house, tastefully decorated in white and gold, with interiors so clean that they sparkle in the endless sunshine pouring through the high and plentiful windows. Three people live here (though once there were more) protected not just by the fence that surrounds the grounds, but by the buried charms and magical words that Merricat, our narrator, uses to keep the world out.

I am walking on buried treasure, I thought, with the grass brushing against my hands and nothing around me but the reach of the long field with the grass blowing and the pine woods at the end; behind me was the house, and far off to my left, hidden by the trees and almost out of sight, was the wire fence our father had built to keep people out.

Merricat survived the crime that is at the heart of the story – the wholesale poisoning by arsenic of most of her family when she was just 12. Now she lives with her sister Constance, who everyone assumes is guilty of the crime, even though she was tried and acquitted. The third member of the household is Uncle Julian, another survivor, although he has been left disabled by the experience. While Merricat, now 18, runs childlike and free in the grounds of the house with her constant companion, Jonas the cat, Constance is the homemaker, always cooking and baking, and caring for both Merricat and their uncle. Uncle Julian is writing a memoir of the day of the poisoning, a task made difficult by his failing and confused memory. It is through Uncle Julian’s ramblings and Merricat’s hints and suggestions that the reader gradually gets a picture of what happened.

Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson

But regardless of truth or proof, Constance has been tried and found guilty by the villagers. The family were never liked – they fenced themselves in and the villagers out – so now the villagers have an ideal excuse to vent their bitterness. On Merricat’s twice weekly trip to the village for supplies, she is shunned by the adults and jeered at by the children. But once home, back in the enchanted space inside the fence, the little family is safe and happy. Until one day, Merricat’s protections fail, and Cousin Charles comes to visit, bringing with him all the sanity and coarseness of the real world. And when Charles’ arrival awakens new desires in Constance, Merricat’s childlike superstitions turn towards something much darker…

Thursday was my most powerful day. It was the right day to settle with Charles. In the morning Constance decided to make spice cookies for dinner; that was too bad, because if any of us had known we could have told her not to bother, that Thursday was going to be the last day.

Merricat is a unique narrator, though much in the Gothic tradition of the lunatic telling her tale. But though we are forced to recognise the insanity that lives within her imaginings, there is a charm and air of childish innocence about her that leads us to sympathise with her totally; the most disturbing thing about the story is that, though we know someone in the house has committed this awful crime, we can’t condemn – we are firmly on the side of Merricat and her family and against the rest of the world. As the story progresses, the sunshine gradually fades into something very disquieting and truly spine-tingling.

A wonderfully written book that distorts and plays with the reader’s expectations, this reads to me like the ‘true’ story behind the creation of the familiar ‘witch’ myths. We see the story from the inside, but if we look closely we also see how Merricat and Constance would have been viewed by the villagers – two strange women, one suspected of a horrific crime, the other, accompanied everywhere by her knowing cat, using talismans and magical words to ward off strangers. As I left Merricat’s world and returned shivering to my own, it seemed when I looked backwards that perhaps the house was made of gingerbread after all…

Hansel-and-gretel-rackham

To see the great review that inspired me to read this, please click through to LitBeetle’s blog. Thanks, LitBeetle!

Fretful porpentine rating 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating         😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Next week on Tuesday Terror! – Susan Hill

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