Earlier this year, The Library of America released an edition of Shirley Jackson's (pictured above) work, including novels and short stories. I decided to re-read one of her most famous and controversial works, The Lottery. This eerie short story was published to acclaim, shock, and uproar in the New Yorker in 1948. The magazine received an influx of angry letters and many readers canceled their subscriptions. Shirley Jackson (1916-1965), was a housewife and a mother to four children, and lived most of her life in Vermont. This background would not necessarily appear to lend itself to the dark themes of her work. Yet Jackson's stories are precise, measured, and chilling.
The Lottery tells the story of a small village that has an annual ritual wherein all the townsfolk put their names in a black box. One name is called and that person is doomed to a horrific fate. While there have been many interpretations of this story, it seems to me it is about what defines a society, who is in power, and how to escape (or not be able to escape) the confines of oppressive and unjust social systems. It reminded me of the premise of Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games and also of Ursula LeGuin's short story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.
In 2007, The Shirley Jackson Awards were established to pay homage to Jackson's unique and memorable writing, thus permanently securing her work in the American canon. This literary award is given to authors who have written stand-out "literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic."
Over this weekend, I also read Barbara Comyns' Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, an oddball allegorical tale published in 1955 about a river that floods a small English village and the literal madness that ensues (possibly as a result of the baker's rye bread). Comyns was not only a writer but also a breeder of poodles and a renovator of pianos! In this work, she explores the nuances of a motley family of three generations all living under the same roof. The matriarchal and domineering Grandmother Willoweed attempts to rule the house as well as the village. I imagine that these villagers may be similar to the ones that exist in Jackson's The Lottery. Comyns writes "The madness, the madness, you couldn't get away from it." Each day in the lives of the Willoweeds is stranger than the next, with such occurrences including a day in which "Plates where thrown across the luncheon table and a tortoise through the window." The tone of this book reminds me of the documentary "Grey Gardens," as there is something repulsive and tragic about many of the characters.
Neither of these books provide comfort or uplift the spirits, but they are both compelling and likely like nothing you've ever read before.