Saturday, 17 December 2011

The Lottery and Other Stories - Shirley Jackson

Back in June, I posted Shirley Jackson's most famous short story 'The Lottery' and promised that, sooner or later, I'd write about her collection The Lottery and Other Stories.  Well, six months later I'm finally going to write a post about it, but I have a feeling that it won't quite qualify as a review.  But I'm not one of those bloggers who gets myself in a tizzy over whether or not to use the word 'review', so shall we move on?

If you haven't read 'The Lottery', I suggest you click on the link above and acquaint yourself.  It won't take long, and it will leave quite an impression.  Enough of an impression that some people (naming no names) have been wary of reading anything more by Jackson.  I, however, love me some Shirley - her gothicy, psychological novels We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House as well as her Provincial Ladyesque Life Among the Savages.  Where in this broad spectrum, pondered I, would her other short stories fall?

A whole new territory, it turns out.  After 'The Lottery' (you should go and read it before I accidentally give the game away) I expected Jackson's stories all to pivot around shocking twists, with menacing backdrops of small town life.  As it happens, all the other stories collected here are rather different from 'The Lottery'.  Where that story is a masterclass in structure, building in tension until a revelatory climax, Jackson's other stories are much more nebulously structured.  They rarely have an end, and often don't have a beginning - instead they are slices of life, and significant experiences rather than momentous, er, moments.  Going through the other short story writers I've read, in my head, the nearest I can think of are Alice Munro and Kate Chopin - much shorter than Munro's stories, but with that balance of interrogation and eventual mystery.

Jackson's stories, though, still lean towards the familiar themes of claustrophobic. small town life.  A few deal with racism.  In one of the longer stories, 'Flower Garden', a friendship between young mothers unravels owning to differing views about letting their children play with a black boy.  In turn, one of the mothers (a newcomer) is gradually ostracised by the community.
[Mrs. MacLane] stared at the blue bowl, and said slowly, "When I first came, everyone was so nice, and they seemed to like Davey and me and want to help us."

That's wrong, Mrs. Winning was thinking, you mustn't ever talk about whether people like you, that's bad taste.
Jackson often quietly questions the codes which hold together communities, and the hypocrisy within society.  The same theme is visited more subtly in a much shorter story - 'After You, My Dear Alphonse' - which demonstrates how brilliantly Jackson follows that first rule of writing: show, don't tell.  She never has the here's-the-moral-we-learnt moment, but rather shows normal people and lets them reveal their own dark natures.  Dark, but not evil - her characters are always understandable, if not quite sympathetic.

My favourite story here, aside from 'The Lottery', is probably 'The Daemon Lover' - a mysterious, haunting story of a bride wandering door-to-door on her wedding day, trying to find her groom.  It gives one a prolonged shudder, rather than a sudden shock, and the atmosphere laced through it is Jackson at her best.  Flicking through at random, 'The Tooth' is almost hallucinatory; 'Of Course' is witty and wise; 'Charles' is actually an excerpt from Life Among the Savages and has that wry, warm tone; 'Afternoon in Linen' shows a slightly more jarring childhood moment. There are twenty-six stories in The Lottery and other stories and, as often with short story collections, it's difficult to pinpoint a unifying theme.  But I think I may have spotted one... and it's not just the curious repetition of the name 'James Harris' throughout, to which this Wikipedia entry lends a clue.

A lot of perceptive critics have noted the domestic claustrophobia of Jackson's two most famous novels, We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House - a Gothic influence that is absent from almost all these stories.  But Jackson has broadened this theme into the more widely felt one of entrapment.  People in these stories are so often trapped - in sad situations, in unwelcoming towns, or in their own unmovable prejudices.  Even within the way the stories are written, denying the characters a big moment of narrative climax, finishing in the middle of ongoing scenarios rather than ending neatly, the characters are trapped in unfinalised tales, unable to escape.  If this is more often sad or staid than scary, then that only emphasises Jackson's impressive sensitivity - and versatility.

7 comments:

  1. Oh, I knew I was about to be publicly shamed. To be fair, I'm quite eager to read Life Among the Savages, because when have I ever been able to resist anything even remotely Provincial Ladyesque? (My library has apparently lost their copy, which is what they always do as soon as I place a hold on a book they only have one copy of.) But I do certainly have an irrational fear about reading Jackson's other works, even after having loved the opening pages of We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Hopefully, 2012 will see me conquer this fear, ideally with We Have Always Lived in the Castle (which might help me get over my other fear of all things Gothic) but perhaps with these stories instead, since your assurance that they are free of Gothic influence is most encouraging. I will just have to skip the traumatizing "The Lottery"!

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  2. Every fall I think I'm going to get around to We Have Always Lived in the Castle for a "spooky October read," and I haven't done it yet. I think The Lottery was required reading in my high school days, but that was in another age. I shall join Claire in making 2012 the year of Shirley Jackson. Thanks for the summaries on these!

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  3. Shirley Jackson is unfortunately one of those authors I've not read anything of. But I'm intrigued especially after two (or three) magic words you used: Gothic and Provincial Ladyesque. I've seen this copy in the English section of the bookstore so I think I'll have to make the plunge as soon as this week!

    Ps...I loved your Persephone sketch in the previous post!

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  4. Claire - sorry to name and shame! But, yes, I'm pretty sure you would love Life Among the Savages, but perhaps save her scarier books for the summer - scary + dark nights = scarier!

    Susan - I do hope you manage to read it in 2012 (when I will endeavour to read the Marilynne Robinson I promised you ages ago!)

    Dan - nab it! You'll be besotted ;) And thank you :)

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  5. I know I'm late (only just starting to catch up on my Google Reader items), but I just wanted to say that this was a fantastic review! I love it! Very perceptive and well-written.

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  6. My favorite story here is "The Daemon Lover." Herein, Jackson offers one of the most poignant, touching looks at loneliness, desperation, and fragility I have ever read. In the story, we spend a day with the protagonist as she prepares for her wedding, having become engaged just the night before to a James Harris. It is a depressing yet beautiful story, and I actually rate it higher than "The Lottery." The character of James Harris actually flitters throughout several of these stories, a phantom of sorts haunting several of Jackson's more memorable female characters.

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