THE LOTTERY, OR THE ADVENTURES OF JAMES HARRIS (1949) by Shirley Jackson

Jackson-Lottery-aceThis volume has appeared under a number of variant titles over the years but is principally known for its inclusion of that macabre and enigmatic classic, ‘The Lottery’, which along with The Haunting of Hill House probably remains Shirley Jackson’s best known single work. But what of the other two dozen stories of suspense and unease contained within?

I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo; Katie’s 2014 Book to Movie Challenge at Doing Dewey (for review links, click here); and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog, which today celebrates the work of Shirley Jackson.

“No matter how often or how firmly she knocked, no one ever came to the door” – from The Demon Lover

In total there are 25 short stories and vignettes in this book, subdivided into four sections, with a concluding epilogue. The tone is restrained, indirect and subtle, with the focus on individual psychology, demonstrating the kind of irony and dark humour one would associate with the likes of John Collier add Roald Dahl sometimes but with a feeling for human frailty and weakness reminiscent of another of Jackson’s contemporaries, Patricia Highsmith but without the cruelty. Many of the stories are about outsiders looking in, and the protagonists are usually women.

“Sometimes, she thought, stacking the dishes in the kitchen, sometimes I wonder if men are quite sane, any of them.” Got a Letter from Jimmy

In “The Daemon Lover” it is the wedding day of a woman in her early thirties whose life seems to have passed her by a little, someone somewhat set in her ways but who is now attempting to embark on something new. Only thing is, her fiancée, one ‘James Harris’, fails to show up. She starts searching the streets for him in a sequence of increasing panic reminiscent of Woolrich in its sense of mounting paranoia but with none of his hysterical purple prose – Jackson is always in supreme control with a near-Jamesian lucidity and omniscience.

“David’s desire to be rid of Mr. Harris had slid imperceptibly into an urgency to be rid of them both; his clean house, his nice silver, were not meant as vehicles for the kind of fatuous banter Marcia and Mr. Harris were playing at together …” - from Like Mother Used to Make

Jackson_The-LotteryIn “Like Mother Used to Make,” perhaps my favourite from the first part of the book, a rather fussy and fastidious young man sees his very precise existence disrupted by the antics of his chaotic next door neighbour, a carefree young woman he clearly likes. But she seems to only have eyes for another, ‘James Harris’ again though he seems to be a different man in this story, which incidentally has a truly perfect ending. The first section is mainly set in the city while the second section relocates to the countryside. The point of view is entirely female in terms of characters though small boys and girls all feature in many of the tales, which at their best deal obliquely but forcefully with the themes of conformity (seen most famously in “The Lottery”) and occasionally powerful observational pieces on casual racism (most notably in “After You, My Dear Alphonse” and one of the longest pieces, “Flower Garden”).  The epilogue to the book is the old ballad in which Harris is essentially the devil – despite what some editions might try to make you think with their lurid covers (my edition is the Ace paperback featured at the top of this review), this is not a book of the supernatural. So while characters named Harris turn up in a variety of guises (he also appears in “The Villager” and the perfectly titled, “Seven Types of Ambiguity”as well as the humorous nighbours-from-hell tale,”Of Course”), he is not a diabolical force but rather a disruptive element instead.

“Please come and get me,” she said into the black mouthpiece that might or might not tell him, “please come and get me, Brad. Please.” – from Pillar of Salt

In the loosest sense the stories contained here are suspense stories, ones in which the everyday becomes inimical, irrational feelings bubbling to the surface in the most banal of everyday situations like an encounter for a small boy on a train or a conversation during a party or the sense of despair brought on by finding that you can’t get your newspaper one morning or just trying to cross the road. Beautifully written, psychologically acute and astute, this is a classic book that more than rewards the attentive reader.

Jackson-LotteryPart I

  • “The Intoxicated”
  • “The Daemon Lover”
  • “Like Mother Used to Make”
  • “Trial by Combat”
  • “The Villager”
  • “My Life with R. H. Macy”

Part II

  • “The Witch”
  • “The Renegade”
  • “After You, My Dear Alphonse”
  • “Charles”
  • “Afternoon in Linen”
  • “Flower Garden”
  • “Dorothy and My Grandfather and the Sailors”

Jackson-The-Lottery-penguinPart III

  • “Colloquy”
  • “Elizabeth”
  • “A Fine Old Firm”
  • “The Dummy”
  • “Seven Types of Ambiguity”
  • “Come Dance with Me in Ireland”

Part IV

  • “Of Course”
  • “Pillar of Salt”
  • “Men with Their Big Shoes”
  • “The Tooth”
  • “Got a Letter from Jimmy”
  • “The Lottery”

Part V

  • “Epilogue”

Jackson signature work, The Lottery, a powerful short story of a terrifying ritual that has passed into legend, has been adapted several times for radio and the screen. You can download a 1951 radio version here, while the short 1969 film adaptation by the Encyclopedia Britannica is certainly preferable to the bloated 1996 TV-Movie that uncomfortably inflated the narrative to a 100-minute running time, is currently available to view on YouTube in two bite-size chunks:

The Lottery, part 1

The Lottery, part 2

For general information about Jackson and her work, visit: http://shirleyjackson.org/.

I offer this review for Bev’s 2014 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo in the ‘Short Story’ category:

mark2-Vintage-Golden

***** (4 fedora tips out of 5)

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38 Responses to THE LOTTERY, OR THE ADVENTURES OF JAMES HARRIS (1949) by Shirley Jackson

  1. Sergio – I can’t tell you how pleased I am that you reviewed some of Shirley Jackson’s work. She was so talented at building suspense just from psychological tension – absolutely gifted if you ask me (but of course you didn’t). And you’re spot on about the dark wit in the stories too. With her, it works.

    • Thank you Margot – obviously I’m stretching things a little here in terns of definition but I do love her work so wanted to get her into Fedora somehow! On re-reading the book I founbd that more of them fell into the genre than I remembered, so that was a nice surprise too. I just re-read the title story this morning as I always find it hard to get out of my head.

  2. TracyK says:

    I have heard much about this book, but have never read anything by Shirley Jackson (unless maybe I did in school). I have always associated her with stories that are too tense and scary for me. Someday I should give something of hers a try.

    • She’s a marvellous writer but unease is probably the overriding sensation the stories here evoke – none are horrible but all are astute studies of women in distress, from threats of violence to just getting stuck in an unknown city – they are brilliantly done, and there is humour here – but I did refer to Highsmith on purpose as they do have a fair amount in common – does that sound like your cup of java?

      • TracyK says:

        You picked the perfect word, Sergio. Unease. That is what I don’t like and avoid. My husband leans more in that direction. However, I do plan to try Highsmith. At the least, The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train.

        • Yikes – can’t wait to see what you make of the Highsmith books – as for Jackson, well, I think you would really like stories such as “Like Mother Used to Make” and “Flower Garden” which are more piece sof social observation – but yeah, I suspect alot of these wouldnot appeal!

  3. John says:

    For this week’s tribute to Shirley Jackson I read about eight short stories which were in a volume of Jackson’s unpublished work along with about 15 of her magazine stories that appeared in a wide variety of publications. It was really interesting to see how she recycled ideas and rewrote stories. She even sometimes lifted characters from one story and put them in another. I found only three that had the same chilling effect of “The Lottery” She mostly wrote for women’s magazines and those stories deal with the hassles of suburban life — fighting gossips, keeping up with your neighbors, trying to retain an image of respect, and lots of subplots about young people getting engaged. I was really surprised that most of what she sold was kind of sappy and old-fashioned. Not at all what I would’ve expected from a writer known for very dark themes in her best known novels and that one short story.

    In preparation for this tribute to Jackson even I watched “The Lottery” on YouTube. Both Joe and I remembered watching that very film in junior high school. Joe said it gave him nightmares. Did you know Ed Begley Jr was in it? He’s the tall blond kid who has to draw for his family because (it’s implied) his parents were victims of previous lotteries.

    • I had no idea that was Begley? I really will have to watch it again – thanks so much John. I am really lookign forward to your Pretty Sinister post because I am very unfamiliar with this other side to her writing having only really read this collection and some of the novels – thanks chum, as always, for the support and all the wonderful insight.

      • John says:

        My Jackson post is up now! It’s bit cursory than my usual posts because I read so much in an attmept to uncover her darker fiction. I kept finding domestic dramas and lighthearted “feel good” pieces. But when the dark stuff turned up it was pretty disturbing. She had insight into what fear and dread can do to people.

        • Really enjoyed your post, previsely because it covered some of her lesser-known work though given the markets it appeared in may have been read by many more people however! She is awesomely good on anatomising the horribleness of social conventions!

  4. Colin says:

    OK, hands up here. This is all new to me and probably shouldn’t be. I like short stories quite a lot, and the suspense variety usually hit the spot. This certainly sounds like it’s worth a read.

    • The Lottery is one of those books that gets anthologised all the time but I really rate the whole collection. And if you loved Robert Wise’s The Haunting (seriously, who doesn’t?), as I’m sure you did, you won;t be disappointed :)

      • Colin says:

        I didn’t make the connection with The Haunting until I read your post, and yes I do like it – it creeps me out more than any other movie to be honest.
        Given that I do like these kinds of suspense tales, I’m a little surprised that the author is (with the exception of the Wise movie) unfamiliar to me.

        • I may be wrong about this but her reputation seems to be very strong in the US but not to great elsewhere – most of the editions of her books I have found have nbeen imports. She writes brilliantly about women especially though, as John pointed out in his comment (and I can’t wait to read his full post later today as I only kniow her from a few of her main works), she also wrote a lot of much more commercial material – and of course she died very young (only 48). In many ways, the author I would most compare her to, apart from Highsmith, is James Tiptree Jr (aka Alice B. Sheldon), who used a male persona for much of her best-known fiction, which is trellign about the marketplace back then though in her case it seems to have also been a major aide to her creative process.

          • Colin says:

            Yes, that may be part of the reason. There are certainly a number of authors whose popularity in the US isn’t reflected elsewhere.

          • I always think that this is due to regionalism but there may be more to it frankly – I mean, why isn;t Marget Millar better-known? Of course Highsmith is the opposite example where she has a much better reputation overseas.

  5. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Excellent review – the only Jackson I have read is “The Lottery” which is quite chillingly brilliant. I’m not sure if I’m strong enough to read her in large chunks….!

    • Oh go on, be a devil! Thanks Karen – the paperback is a great compendium of some of her best work in the short form and there is lots of humour along with the sense of anxiety …

  6. Ela says:

    I’ve not read any Jackson (nor indeed heard of her before), and these sound really interesting – though possibly to read during the safe daytime rather than before going to bed!

  7. Bev Hankins says:

    “The Lottery” is one of those short stories that I read multiple times in high school & college. It never failed to creep me out no matter how many times I read it.

  8. Todd Mason says:

    You definitely should read the COLLECTED STORIES, Mario, not that you weren’t about to…the off-base comments of her kids in JUST AN ORDINARY DAY (as opposed to the sapient ones) can be put into context better with a better grounding in her work. And speaking of sapient…she really was, along with Bloch and Leiber and Collier and Blackwood and James and even, however peripherally, Highsmith, and less so Woolrich…one of those who helped revolutionize horror (and all of them, this time with Leiber at the periphery, suspense) fiction at midcentury…

    • Todd Mason says:

      And certainly Dahl was as cruel as Highsmith! Albeit PH was a bit more sensitive while cruel, it’s true.

    • Get that Mario guy out of here (your plumber, Todd?)!!! I really will get that volume, thanks for all that extra info – Must admit, I admire Highsmith enormously but find her work much harder to take than Dahl (just a question of how much you twist the knife I guess …). God, Leiber was a wonderful writer – could we get Patti to dedicate her Friday meme to his work, someday?

      • Todd Mason says:

        Oh, I’m barely keeping it together today, Angelo. (Wait…no.) Sorry about that. –Biff.

        • Todd Mason says:

          I’m not sure where I pulled “Mario” from, aside from a number of Marios in my life over the decades. Sergio, you can be proud to know that in times of zoning out, I’ve managed to get both your given and family names wrong. I impress myself.

          I don’t know if Patti will be up for a Leiber fest. She’s rather tentative around fantasists. I don’t know if I’ve yet convinced her to read CONJURE WIFE, for that matter. I think Highsmith might’ve been more put upon as a young’n, but perhaps not. I rather understand that Patricia Neal allowed herself to be bullied more than Marijane Meaker did, by their respective partners…perhaps Neal took Ayn Rand and her fatal flaw in being a woman nonsense a bit too seriously.

          –Volpe Scalpellino

          • Hiya Foxy – ah well, Leiber shall have to be celebrated elsewhere (I’ve lent Conjure Wife so often I had to had to buy new copies twice after my editions wore out – now that’s real love of literature!

            As for the cruellest cuts of all, well, Dahl on the page is what I meant but I dare say you are right and off page RD and PH probably deserved each other!

        • If I had a euro for my typos and blogosphere cockups we’d both be rich! So what do you say, can you have a word with Patti about our good friend Fritz?

          • Todd Mason says:

            Sure. Worst comes to worst, maybe the next time I guest-host. (And given all the languages you’ve apparently been speaking in various situations over the decades, Sergio, it’s a wonder than any of your sentences aren’t in six or seven at once…a la the character in Alfred Bester’s “6,271.009”…)

          • Says the guy who frequently blogs in Hawaiian!

            Ooh, that reminds me, I haven’t read that Bester story – thanks chum!

  9. Todd’s right about Shirley Jackson working in the same unique genre that Robert Bloch, Friz Leiber, John Collier, and Patricia Highsmith specialized in: unsettling the reader.

    • Thanks for that George – they’re all such wonderful writers – an extraordinary period in the immediate postwar when the weird entered the modern and every day, never to leave again …

      • Todd Mason says:

        Where folks were taking the insights of Lovecraft, the ambition of the Decadents (at least to explore new depths and sensation), making common cause with the more celebrated Existentialists (as Lovecraft did in advance in outlook) and playing with the deft wit and skepticism of the Edwardians and making the obvious connections…and paring down the prose. I still say Bloch is the Hammett/Hemingway/Heinlein figure in horror, in that last wise. Once he found his own voice.

        • That is one truly breathless trajectory Todd! I’d read Bloch over Hemingway or Heinlein any day (though I do love ‘By His Bootstraps’ and ‘All You Zombies’ especially).

  10. Sergio, I have merely scratched the surface as far as Shirley Jackson’s work is concerned and I intend to read her other stories and novels in days and months to come, perhaps alongside the work of Patricia Highsmith who has been on my reading radar for a while now. I don’t mind reading fiction that is dark and unsettling though I find that theme in a family setting rather disturbing, often asking myself whether I need to read the stuff at all. I will, of course, JDM and Ross Macdonald having prepared me for it, somewhat. Finally, it’s only a fictionalised work. Thanks again for an excellent overview and the very engaging discussion above.

    • Thanks Prashant. Highsmith, Jackson and Ross Macdonald were all fine prose stylists, first and foremost and strong on characterisation, though you would rarely get them mixed up. Macdonald, because he wrote a series in the first person, is more conventional, while in Highsmith there can be very little obvious love for her very flawed protagonists. They are exceptional writers and Jackson and Highsmith in particular often went to places that other writer just didnt go to very often and did it very well. Whether you would want to go there is another question of course! Wonderful writers all, hope you enjoy the ride!

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