The Lottery And Other Stories – Shirley Jackson

I started the work of American author Shirley Jackson the wrong way round.  My recent introduction to her was via her last novel, published in 1962, “We Have Always Lived In The Castle” which I loved.  Thirteen years earlier this collection of short stories appeared with the title work really establishing her reputation. It is here as the final story alongside 25 others and a poem linked to one of the tales which rounds things off.

Having not read many short story collections for years I have read three in fairly rapid succession; Truman Capote’s festive themed compendium “A Christmas Memory”, bringing together tales of his from throughout his career and Bryan Washington’s award-winning collection of themed stories in “Lot”.  I can’t get out of my head that this format can feel inconsequential and somewhat unimportant compared to a writer’s longer works.  Capote and Washington went a little way to changing my viewpoint on this, but Jackson’s collection, on the whole, doesn’t.

There is no doubt that she can write and is a major American twentieth century literary figure.  The stories are beautifully set up, often they deal with a newcomer whose arrival changes dynamics, often they have a character named Harris in them (not the same character but this is obviously a name the writer liked to use).  In the space of a couple of pages a situation and characters are vividly drawn but too often for me the ending comes without the story feeling fully realised.

Shirley Jackson was a prolific short story writer publishing over 200 and this was early on in her career where she may still be finding her voice to some extent.  She has become famed for tales where a veneer of respectability hides a layer of darkness and this is something which really appeals to me and this was certainly evident in the novel I read but not so fully established with these earlier stories.  It is certainly present in the title piece “The Lottery”.  This is where I experienced the most dread and it had a satisfactory twist and works best as the most complete of the tales here.

A number of the others reminded me of one of USA’s most celebrated short story writers (perhaps now out of fashion) O Henry (1862-1910), naturally with a more contemporary feel, but with his richness of language and scene setting if not with the clever endings which made his name.

I did enjoy these stories, at no point did Shirley Jackson bore me by going on too long but she did regularly leave me wanting a bit more, which now and again is a very good strategy but over the whole collection I must admit to finding it a little frustrating.

The Lottery And Other Stories was first published in 1949.  I read the Penguin Modern Classics  paperback edition.

We Have Always Lived In The Castle – Shirley Jackson (1962)

I’ve always been a bit sniffy about the novella.  As recently as June this year in my review of Adam Mars-Jones’ “Box Hill” I said; “My main quibble comes with the novella form.  I end up feeling slightly short-changed”.  Could this be the book which has at last caused a change of heart?  Over 146 pages in the Penguin Classics paperback edition Shirley Jackson creates a superb, unsettling Gothic tale with an unreliable narrator and a series of beautifully written set-pieces which will forge this book forever in this reader’s memory.

I have never read American author Shirley Jackson (1916-65).  I know her career was established by short-stories and short form novels where a surface respectability hid tales of darkness.  In a superb opening we meet 18 year old Mary Katherine Blackwood (known as “Merricat”) negotiating her twice weekly trip into her local village as a kind of board game where her fate may be decided by a roll of the dice.  She perceives great hostility from those she encounters before returning to her sizeable family home now occupied only by her sister and an ailing uncle who do not leave the premises.  The veneer of respectability is tested when neighbours come to take tea in what is almost a parody of a familiar social situation.  We know something is very awry with this family and that the girls’ parents, brother and aunt all died on the same night within this house.  Merricat herself is happy with the unchanged world of isolation which has become the norm the last six years until a cousin comes to visit which makes things fall further out of kilter.

There’s a menace throughout which is stifling but that runs alongside Merricat’s often simplistic observations.  Even though none of the plot twists are surprising we end up with an extraordinary work where the lines between innocence and guilt are blurred, where the narrator continually disturbs and the horror story and fairy tale lay side by side without either becoming more than subtle.  I thoroughly enjoyed this and feel that I have discovered a writer who will continue to resonate strongly with me.  Length-wise it was perfect and I don’t think I have often said that about a novella before.

We Have Always Lived In The Castle was first published in 1962.  I read the 2009 Penguin Classics paperback edition which has an afterword by Joyce Carol Oates.