Chances are you’ve read, or at least heard of, Shirley Jackson’s short story, The Lottery. In case you need a reminder, it’s the one where a woman gets stoned to death by her own family and neighbors. English teachers love it, it is a textbook example of foreshadowing and has enough ambiguity to be analyzed for hours. It might come as a surprise then, upon its publication in 1948, most Americans had a very different reaction. Jackson’s most well known piece of short fiction was published for the first time in The New Yorker, an extremely popular literary magazine with readership all across the U.S. Within days of publication, the magazine received hundreds of angry letters and subscription cancellations. Many of the letters referred to Jackson and The Lottery as “perverted,” calling her depiction of “mass sadism…in bad taste.” Quite a few of the letters also posed questions as to the story’s fictionality; many concerned readers seemed to be unsure as to whether The Lottery was describing actual events or simply a figment of Jackson’s imagination (note: the New Yorker did not explicitly mark any of its articles as fiction or nonfiction). This uproar over The Lottery, along with critical and consumer claims that it attacked small town American values and traditions, caused it to be banned in numerous school districts and libraries. Most recently, in 2013, several Texas school districts banned the story on the grounds it was pointlessly gruesome and unnecessarily violent.
The Lottery’s plot is simple, a small town holds a drawing every year where one person’s name is chosen at random. Another name from that chosen person’s immediate family is then drawn. That family member must then resign themselves to stepping into the center of the crowd as their friends and family hurl stones at them, leading eventually to their death. It is briefly mentioned that the townspeople believe this ritual will bring better crops, though some characters seem uncomfortable with its brutality. The prose itself isn’t bloody or gruesome, the real horror lies in the tone of the piece. Jackson, in all of her work, takes on a very detached voice that manages to give the reader a remarkably clear sense of a story’s mood while also inserting a subtle eeriness into everything she writes. Jackson has published several novels (among them, The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle), but short stories are where she truly shines. The Lottery sends chills down a reader’s spine with its content, with the unthinkable act that the characters commit, and their evident lack of remorse.
It might now be easier to see why the American public was so deeply unsettled by The Lottery. Though, it still seems too harsh to say that it was attacking American values, as it was not so much attacking tradition as applying a healthy dose of criticism to it. As for allegations of Jackson’s work being aimlessly violent, I’m inclined to say that such claims are simply false. The violence present in The Lottery is far from pointless, it is there to highlight the story’s message, which at its core is a close look at human nature. Jackson is criticizing an unquestioning adherence to tradition, not any tradition in particular, and in this case needed violence to express that.
Unlike The Lottery, the majority of Jackson’s short fiction relies not on what happens in the narrative, but rather what doesn’t happen. A notable example of this is The Daemon Lover, in which a young woman cannot locate her fiancé, Jamie, on the day of their wedding. She asks around town if anyone has seen him and receives mixed responses, from the superintendent of his apartment building who asserts that no man named Jamie has ever lived there, to a young boy who claims to have seen a man of Jamie’s description go into an abandoned house. When the young woman enters the old house, it is visibly empty, yet she is certain that she hears laughter and voices coming from the walls. The narrative ends with the woman making frequent, desperate trips to the house, as she is convinced that her fiancé is there, despite having no hard evidence. The actual events of this story are not frightening, distressing, yes, but not overtly scary. The questions it poses, stemming from its lack of information, makes it intriguing, and when thoughtfully considered, terrifying. Is this woman going insane? Did Jamie ever exist in the first place? Does the title, The Daemon Lover, imply that Jamie was literally a denizen of hell? It is all of these uncertainties that make Jackson a true master of horror.
Any literary work that incites fear in its audience is bound to receive some negative feedback. Jackson’s brand of fear is not reliant on gore or monsters, it is rooted in humanity. The brutality, confusion, and emptiness that her characters exhibit is all too easy to see in ourselves. To say that any of the sparse violence or well thought out social criticism present in Jackson’s fiction is without purpose, without aim, would be to fundamentally and unfortunately misunderstand her work.

 

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