'Perverted': how Shirley Jackson's The Lottery caused outrage across America
Elisabeth Moss plays Shirley Jackson in Shirley
American horror writer Shirley Jackson has a moment. Shirley, a biopic starring Mad Men and The Handmaid's Tale star Elisabeth Moss, will be released in the UK later this month. And Jackson's classic ghost story, The Haunting of Hill House, was recently spiced up by a superbly scary Netflix adaptation.
What is less known, however, is how it first came to be known. Jackson was early in her career and practically unknown when The New Yorker published her short story The Lottery in 1948. It made them famous overnight - or actually notorious. You could think of it as the cat person of its time.
The lottery is set in an unnamed New England town - modeled on Bennington, Vermont, where Jackson lived with her husband and children. A holiday atmosphere emerges at the opening: “The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full summer day; The flowers were in abundance and the grass was a deep green. “Everyone is a little bit excited about the lottery - an annual tradition that goes as far back as anyone can remember. Since it's a small town, it can be done in under two hours for everyone to come home for dinner. The children scurry and play. Little boys make a pile of stones. Mothers clap. Fathers exchange jokes and smile.
When everyone is gathered, the ingenious master of ceremonies makes a dingy old black box filled with pieces of paper - it used to be wood shavings, but times have changed - and the male heads of household take turns pulling out a piece of paper.
During the process we are dealt with small bits of smalltown chatter. Some nearby cities are even talking about abolishing the lottery, someone notes.
"Pack of crazy fools," says Old Man Warner. "Listening to young people, nothing is good enough for them. Next, they want to live in caves again."
This year the Hutchinson family is the winner. Ms. Hutchinson complains that it's unfair, but city dwellers pay her little attention. A second draw will take place among the five members of the Hutchinson household - and Mrs. Hutchinson will find the black spot.
At this point - spoiler alert - everyone grabs a rock and stones them to death. The whole thing is sent in not much more than 3,000 words.
The response to this clever little piece of Grand Guignol has not been entirely positive. It is said to have been the most objected story in The New Yorker's history.
Readers called it "cruel", "outrageous", "perverted" and "utterly pointless". Hundreds of subscriptions were canceled and the story was immediately banned in South Africa. Jackson himself once received 12 letters a day from The New Yorker, hardly a single one for it: “Of the 300 or so letters I received this summer,” she later said, “I can only count 13 who spoke kindly me, and they were mostly from friends. "
Shirley Jackson in 1951 - AP
Even her parents brought pen on paper to complain. Jackson's mother wrote to her to report, "Dad and I weren't interested in your story in The New Yorker at all. It seems, dear, that this gritty kind of story is what all young people think of these days. Why are you writing nothing to cheer people up? "
Jackson himself later dryly remarked: "You would be amazed at the number of people who expected Mrs. Hutchinson to end up winning a Bendix washing machine." She also joked, “People weren't that preoccupied with what the story meant at first; They wanted to know where these lotteries were being held and if they could go there and watch. "
Over the years, the reaction to history changed. But in that initial wave of outrage she identified what she called "a wide-eyed species, shocked innocence." That is appropriate. The story touched a nerve. Even in 1948, when the horrors of the Nazi regime were freshly remembered, the idea that such primitive evil could occur among modern, civilized people and not be recognized as such - that mass murder sanctioned by tradition, could be so could be domesticated to be the kind of thing you would look forward to if you got ready in time for dinner - had the power to shock.
Shirley Jackson's biographer, Ruth Franklin, said the story "takes the classic theme of man's inhumanity upon man and gives it an extra twist: the randomness inherent in brutality". And it has been viewed by some as an anticipation of Hannah Arendt's famous phrase "The Banality of Evil" in Eichmann in Jerusalem.
Still others have complained that by not explaining or historicizing the existence of the lottery, Jackson offers an overly pessimistic and casual or even frivolous view of a human standard of sadism.
Well, your mileage may vary. The lottery, after all, is not a serious work of sociology, but a short, sharp horror story, and an excellent one at that. You can see in this the germ of much that would become the standard in the horror and science fiction stories of the years to come. The mood may look sideways to the creepy stories of Ray Bradbury and backwards to the mythology of the Salem witch trials.
A lottery like this is the central McGuffin of The Hunger Games. Rosemary's Baby, The Stepford Wives, and Hereditary all have the same trick of building a community of gossip locals who later turn out to be something terrible. And Stephen King has practically made a career in healthy New England cities where something turns out to be not quite right.
The lingering stab of building the story resonates outside the literary world, however. When we look at the peculiar atrocities we still see licensed by custom and tradition around the world - given the violence that is still committed in the name of religion - we would be fools to copy it off as a period piece.
Shirley will hit theaters on October 30th
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