Shirley Jackson's collection The Lottery and Other Stories was by far my favorite of the four books I finished on my recent vacation, but I've been having trouble getting my thoughts about it down. Part of the issue is that writing about collections of essays and short stories is always more difficult for me than writing about a single, cohesive narrative like a novel or a nonfiction history. In this case, though, the twenty-four stories in Jackson's collection (the only one to be compiled and arranged by her, and to come out during her lifetime) show a remarkable continuity: as diverse as they certainly are, they share a delicious air of eeriness, of something off. One gets the feeling, much more than with most short story collections I've read, that Jackson has an overarching project in writing these short pieces, and that, while they may not share specific characters, or settings (though many take place in New York) they are all fragments of a unified portrait. In each one, as in the whole, Jackson's fractured yet spookily familiar worldview is evident.
No, I think the real reason I'm having trouble writing about Jackson is that I loved so many facets of her work, and I feel overwhelmed trying to choose a direction. Like tearing off a band-aid or jumping into the deep end, however, here I go: one deep breath, and then the plunge.
The first thing that struck me about Jackson was the marvelous way in which she somehow manages to make the mundane—in some cases I would go so far as to say the boring—details of domestic life gradually take on a sinister psychological tension of a horror movie. Like many people, the only Jackson I'd read previous to this was the famous "The Lottery," and while it's certainly creepy, it's also more fantastical, its creepiness more blatant, than many of the subtler pieces in this collection. I was surprised to find that in many of them, nothing out of the ordinary seems to happen—a woman takes the bus into the city to get a tooth extracted; a young mother sees her son off to his first months of kindergarten; a member of the small-town aristocracy notices a new family moving into the cottage she had always dreamed of occupying. Rather, it's in Jackson's manner of telling that the ordinary becomes malevolent. See how she begins "My Life with R.H. Macy," the story of a young woman's first few days working at a department store (shades of The Price of Salt here!):
And the first thing they did was segregate me. They segregated me from the only person in the place I had even a speaking acquaintance with; that was a girl I had met going down the hall who had said to me: "Are you as scared as I am?" And when I said "Yes," she said, "I'm in lingerie, what are you in?" and I thought for a while and then said, "Spun glass," which was as good an answer as I could think of, and she said, "Oh. Well, I'll meet you here in a sec." And she went away and was segregated and I never saw her again.
Jackson is amazingly concise. Just in this short paragraph, she suggests a tension that manifests in many of these stories: is the narrator truly in a confusing, sinister situation? Or is her sense of the skewed, menacing quality all in her own head? Is she disordered in her inability to adjust and filter her experiences like the people around her, or is she picking up on a dehumanized quality in the world around her which is real, but to which those around her have become desensitized? Having started a few new jobs in giant, bureaucratic organizations, I'd say that the narrator's confusion and bluntedness here is not too outlandish; the language of the story just emphasizes that feeling of being an aimless cog in a bizarre, senseless machine. In this light the narrator's own odd behavior (in this paragraph, her spontaneous answer that she's "in" Spun Glass) seems no less logical than any other manner of responding.
Jackson spends many of these stories demonstrating how close many normal people are to this same kind of mental disconnect, often by pitting the social expectations of one character against those of the group. In "The Witch," a young boy on a train journey with his mother is enchanted by the idea that some of the passers-by in the station are really witches. In the course of the journey, a stranger in their compartment strikes up a conversation with the boy, which starts out entertaining but becomes more and more disturbing. By the story's end, the mother is protesting angrily (the reader would tend to agree that the man's story is very inappropriate to tell a child), but the boy isn't bothered at all; he incorporates the man's grisly tale into his earlier fantasy about witches. The man's kindly demeanor even as he tells his violent story, coupled with the boy's lack of fear, is unsettling: is the mother actually the one in the wrong here? What is wrong with the man, and what is missing in the young boy that he doesn't find the story frightening?
In fact, the interactions between mothers and children provides much of the collection's richest material. Jackson's view of children seems impressively complex: on the one hand, they can be chilling in their lack of empathy (born of their very limited life experience), as in "The Witch" or "The Renegade," in which young Mrs. Walpole, newly relocated from city to country, learns that her dog has been eating neighborhood chickens and her neighbors all expect her to shoot it. As the country people prove less and less sympathetic, suggesting ever-more draconian methods of breaking the dog of chicken-eating, Mrs. Walpole feels progressively more horrified, especially on behalf of her children—only to discover that the children are amused by their classmates' cruel suggestions about how to kill their pet. Somehow, for them, loving the dog and laughing at the idea of killing it, are not mutually exclusive. Mrs. Walpole's suffocating sensation of identifying with another being's pain when no one else seems to is almost visceral by the end of the story.
But Jackson's child characters are also used, at times, to point up the disgusting or oblivious behavior of the adults around them. In "After You, My Dear Alphonse," we spend five pages cringing as a white, middle-class housewife assumes that her son's friend must be a malnourished charity case just because he's black, then guilt-trips him for not accepting her cast-offs. (He greets her behavior with puzzlement rather than anger, not yet understanding where she gets her mistaken idea of his background.) Similarly, in "Afternoon in Linen" a young Harriet responds to her grandmother's aggressive boasting about some poems she's written, by claiming to have copied them out of a book. "Dorothy and My Grandmother and The Sailors" traces the process by which a girl's mother and grandmother inculcate in her a hysterical prejudice against sailors, without the girl having any idea of the sexual underpinnings of their warnings—she knows to fear sailors like death, but has no idea why, or that the fear should be linked with certain behaviors on the part of the sailors.
Dot looked around suddenly and then grabbed my arm. "Look," she said in a sort of groan, and there were two sailors coming along the row of seats just as my mother and grandmother got down to the other end of the row, and my grandmother had just time to say loudly, "You leave those girls alone," when two seats a few aisles away were vacated and they had to go sit down.
Dot moved far over in her seat next to me and clung to my arm.
"What are they doing?" I whispered.
"They're just sitting there," Dot said. "What do you think I ought to do?"
I leaned cautiously around Dot and looked. "Don't pay any attention," I said. "Maybe they'll go away."
"You can talk," Dot said tragically. "they're not next to you."
"I'm next to you," I said reasonably, "that's pretty close."
"What are they doing now?" Dot asked.
I leaned forward again. "They're looking at the picture," I said.
"I can't stand it," Dot said. "I want to go home."
Panic overwhelmed both of us at once, and fortunately my mother and my grandmother saw us running up the aisle and caught us outside.
This collection is so rich, and many other threads weave through it: the disturbing disconnect of transitioning from city to town or town to city, for example, or the malleability and impermanence of identity. As I plainly can't hit them all in one entry, I'll just say that I treasured this collection, and plan to revisit it in the future.