Book Review: “The Lottery and Other Stories” by Shirley Jackson
When I lived in Toronto some 15 years ago, I took Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery and Other Stories out of the library. I wanted to read “The Lottery” and see what all the fuss was about since I had read that that particular short story was controversial when it was first published in 1948. Well, I read it. I wasn’t sure that I “got it” then. I also read the first story in the collection, “The Intoxicated,” and that was about as far as I got in reading this book on my first go-round. With the demands of work — I was in a stressful job I didn’t like in a city that I found to be cold in terms of making new friends — I just couldn’t get through the rest of the book. Maybe it, too, was a matter of timing. I might not have been mature enough in my reading — despite taking a tough English Lit course in university — and I just probably felt that the book was too far over my head to be reading at the time I attempted to slog through it. Or maybe I was looking for something a little more escapist. I’ve since gone on to read (and review) a few of Jackson’s other works and when the new 75th-anniversary printing of this book came up from Picador, I decided to give it another try. And what more can I say? I found that while this collection boasts some very fine stories, “The Lottery” by far blows them all away. (There’s a reason why it is the last thing in the book.) The story is also a bit of an outlier in this collection as it is more commonly viewed as a horror story, while most of the rest of these pieces are more literary efforts with a feminine flavor. However, if there was one thing Jackson was good at — and these stories show — was that she had a knack for writing about self-absorbed people and the nature of evil and cruelty inherent in humanity at all ages.
“The Lottery” is the sort of story one could probably spend an entire review on when it comes to this book. It has been endlessly imitated in movies and books such as Battle Royale and The Hunger Games series. And if you didn’t already know that fact, I may have accidentally spoiled this story for you. Re-reading this story in 2023 felt somewhat fresh, even if I knew how it would end. Everything about the piece clicks. If you were to ask me, Jackson had some foresight into the kind of country America was morphing into in the late ’40s, with the Communist witch hunts right around the corner historically — which this story seems to eerily predict. But it remains still a harrowing read, and one can see why it generated volumes of hate mail after it was originally published in The New Yorker. All in all, “The Lottery” is the type of ground-breaking story that happens only once in a lifetime and is easily a candidate for the prototypical type of horror fiction that writers such as Stephen King would go on to perfect a few decades later. If there’s only one reason to implore readers to pick up a copy of this book, it would be for “The Lottery” alone. Just don’t do what I did and skip to the end of the book first. Wait to savour it.
While the other stories in this collection are nowhere near as famous as “The Lottery,” there are some good ones to be had here. Naturally, there is some chaff or misfires (there was still the odd story that I couldn’t make heads or tails as to what it was about — so I suspect I’ll need to re-read this book again when I’m 70). However, there are a few clear highlights here that show that Jackson wasn’t a one-trick pony when it came to writing short stories. The novella “Elizabeth,” for example, is a hilarious and seething tale of a New York literary agent who must contend with a younger woman working in the office she and her (business and romantic) partner share. The character is so selfish, it’s like a loving send-up of the treachery of New York society. And, of course, “The Intoxicated,” is an interesting short piece about a teenage girl who sees no future for herself and the others around her. It isn’t “The Lottery,” however, and I suppose I can see why I decided not to venture further into this work during my first attempt. Elsewhere, “Seven Types of Ambiguity” is just plain cruel, particularly for book lovers who have fallen in love with a particular book that they absolutely must have.
So, all in all, there are some commanding stories to be found in The Lottery and Other Stories. It does a good job of, perhaps more so that in any of Jackson’s novels, showing the author’s range and talent. Shirley Jackson knew how to write a story about women and men who are uncompassionate and egocentric. She could also write a piece that would make your skin crawl, as she does with “The Lottery.” That latter story — which I can go on at length about — merits being immediately re-read when you’re done with it as there are details in the first few paragraphs that may strike you as particularly degenerate. Let’s just say that with this collection, you get one bona fide classic tale and a smattering of good to excellent pieces that, alas, can’t hold a candle to the top-billed story. Still, there’s a reason why someone has thought to repackage and rerelease this set all over again. When you’ve written something as outstanding as “The Lottery,” then it’s bound to be rediscovered by new readers or ripped off by authors and filmmakers. This is a good starting point for those interested in getting an overview of the type of work Jackson would produce over her short lifetime and is even more reason to get acquainted with these stories so long after they have been written. This one will give you the shivers. Well, at least one of these stories will and you should know which one I’m talking about.
Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery and Other Stories: 75th Anniversary Edition will be published by Picador on June 6, 2023.
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