Shirley Jackson. The Lottery and Other Stories.

Jackson, Shirley. The Lottery and Other Stories. Farrar, Straus and Co., New York. 1949. F;3/17.

Shirley Jackson reportedly lived a fraught and difficult life. Stuck in a loveless marriage to an openly philandering husband who maintained autocratic control of the household and finances, little wonder that her fiction exuded her rage. This series of stories contains her most famous fiction, The Lottery, along with 24 other tales of varied length but pretty consistent content. Every one of them is about somebody’s negative experience, whether the character is aware of it or not. I found myself not quite suspending disbelief at the start of each story since the hook of evil sometimes came from unsuspected directions. Jackson has been compared to Edgar Allen Poe, and there’s no question they were both, in the company of people like E M Cioran and Emmanuel Carrere, preoccupied with the dark side of things. She died in 1965.

Many of the stories seem to be a simple narrative of a perfunctory nastiness. All reflected the superficially bland post-war social atmosphere, but the best of them as I’ve suggested pulled me into preoccupation with personal failure, weakness, self-delusion, and misunderstanding, nearly 70 years after they were written. Flower Garden presents a complicated unacknowledged race-based hypocrisy. As with many of the stories, a cheery brightness is deftly invoked at the beginning, against which everything goes to hell in a handbasket.

Pillar of Salt particularly caught me off guard. A young couple escaping to New York City for a two-week holiday has a fine time enjoying the city, but the woman responds to a couple of fortuitous not-really-dangerous unpleasant events by falling into a paralyzing panic. Jackson’s descriptions of confinement in tawdry depressing rooms here crosses the subjective-objective divide: deterioration, crumbling, catastrophe, and collapse are clearly internal. Perfectly ordinary situations and objects become terrifying and insurmountable. But worse, the poor woman knows exactly what’s happening and can’t stop it.

The Lottery itself didn’t give me the creeps in quite the same way, having read or at least heard about it before. But it is the same kind of fictional essay on human beings snared in something hideous, while a contrived absence of any rationale, and everyone behaving as though nothing is amiss, emphasize the horror.

Shirley Jackson had the talent and nerve to covertly let the world know she was unhappy, at a time when unhappy women were often drugged with barbiturates or trundled off to special hospitals with obscure psychiatric diagnoses. She is said to have being addicted to drugs and alcohol late in life herself. I struggle to avoid responding to the relentless darkness of her work with okay okay I get it, and just moving on to something lighter and more emotionally redeeming. But like ordinary people watching a house fire or rescue from a car accident, I’m fascinated: thank God it’s not me… 8.8/8.4.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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