The Lottery, one of the most terrifying stories written in this century, created a sensation when it was first published in The New Yorker. “Power and haunting,” and “nights of unrest” were typical reader responses. This collection, the only one to appear during Shirley Jackson’s lifetime, unites “The Lottery:” with twenty-four equally unusual stories. Together they demonstrate Jackson’s remarkable range–from the hilarious to the truly horrible–and power as a storyteller.
Read this book for one reaction: gasping “whaaaaaat!” or perhaps “whaaaaat?” (punctuation varies) after reading the final sentence of every story.
Shirley Jackson is the indisputable master of the “whaaaaaat!/?” Some stories end ambiguously, leaving you scrambling back through the pages searching for a clue or alternately racing to open Google to read others’ wise analyses. Other stories end completely and absolutely unambiguously, leaving you to question not what actually happened but to wonder how such a terrible ending could come to pass. (“The Lottery,” Jackson’s most famous tale, falls in the second type.) But no matter if the ending is ambiguous or unambiguous, what I want to emphasize is that Shirley Jackson knows how to end. I have now read dozens of her short stories and one of her novels and I am convinced that I know of no author who finishes every piece with such decisive flourish.
It’s an incredible skill, knowing how to end something. I often find short stories forgettable. Any novel of 300 pages will indubitably engrave itself in my mind by mere virtue of the hours required to read it. A story of less than 20 pages, however, is at a clear disadvantage. A short story must shock to be memorable. Luckily for us, Jackson has one setting: shock the reader. On the last page, or more often, the last sentence.
But her shocking endings are of the mild, ungratuitous variety. Two of my favorite stories–“The Daemon Lover” and “Like Mother Used to Make”–finish with the protagonists questioning their sanity and autonomy. They don’t run screaming to mental hospitals; rather, they stay quietly and desperately in their homes, wondering who they are and if this is–if this truly can be–their life. To me, such an ending is much more powerful than any louder alternative.
There is something so mundane to Jackson’s writing, which makes the fact that most of the stories are categorized in the horror genre more, well, horrifying. Because it suggests that the quotidian is horror. Jackson is wonderfully aware of the fact that the everyday lives of the normalest of the normal are the most frightening things in the world. No need for ghosts or murderers, everything you need is right there inside of us.
For Jackson, horror is the casual racism of a small New England town, the irrepressible distress of a 30 year old unmarried woman searching for a husband, the monotonous daily routine of a department store salesperson, a badly misbehaving child and his oblivious parents, the terrifying anonymity of an individual in a metropolis of millions. In short, horror is real life.
These stories have a rare rereadable quality. I know that I will reread this collection for the rest of my life, and at the end of every story, for the rest of my life, I will say “whaaaaat!/?”