Shirley Jackson wrote horrible stories. Horrible stories about women trapped in their homes, women with horrible children, women with cold husbands, with mean neighbours, who found leaving the house terrifying, and being terrified when they did.
Alone in her writing room, with her booze and her demons, agoraphobic, strung out on prescribed drugs, her philandering husband dictating what she should and shouldn’t write, and four children to look after – well, is it any wonder.
She’s commonly described as a ‘horror’ writer, but that implies some paranormal element, or shock and gore. Shirley Jackson’s horrors in this collection lie in the ordinary and domestic – children, neighbours, unwelcome visitors, people on buses and trains, going shopping. The matter-of-factness of her prose only adds to the deep unease of the stories; she coolly describes without telling you how to react. There’s little dramatic tension, or engineering the reader’s response through emotive language or pacing. Just ordinary women and everyday terrors, suffused with a sense of hypervigilance that inscribes anxiety in every detail – clothes, hair, etiquette, domestic order.
This collection starts fairly innocuously, but the stories gradually get darker and it concludes with the darkest of all, ‘The lottery’. It’s a horror story in that it reads like a fable, without the contemporary realism of all the other stories. It’s a study in blind obedience to tradition, and deadly conformity (literally), with a more overtly social message than the rest of the collection. After a run of stories of women quietly falling apart and unspoken domestic angst, it’s a shocking finale. Shirley knew what she was doing right up to the last page and its final appalling image. I bow to her genius.