This 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
In “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.
- “The Intoxicated”
- “The Daemon Lover”
- “Like Mother Used to Make”
- “Trial by Combat”
- “The Villager”
- “My Life with R. H. Macy”
- “The Witch”
- “The Renegade”
- “After You, My Dear Alphonse”
- “Afternoon in Linen”
- “Flower Garden”
- “Dorothy and My Grandfather and the Sailors”
- “A Fine Old Firm”
- “The Dummy”
- “Seven Types of Ambiguity”
- “Come Dance with Me in Ireland”
- “Of Course”
- “Pillar of Salt”
- “Men with Their Big Shoes”
- “The Tooth”
- “Got a Letter from Jimmy”
- “The Lottery”
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: