"A room without books is like a body without a soul." - Marcus Tullius Cicero

Thursday, 17 May 2012

The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson

Despite being a fan of scary stories I had never read anything by the legendary horror writer Shirley Jackson until last year when I stumbled upon and was completely blown away by We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Upon finishing this wonderfully creepy novel, I felt eager to read more by Jackson, and immediately added both The Lottery and Other Stories and The Haunting of Hill House to my ‘to-read’ list.

The Lottery and Other Stories is a collection of strange, ambiguous and at times unsettling short stories. Many of them feature a mysterious ‘Mr Harris’ character; In fact it was originally published as The Lottery: The Adventures of James Harris, but he doesn’t actually appear in all the stories so I’m unsure as to why this should be the case.

I cannot deny that Shirley Jackson’s writing is superb; she certainly has a real way with words and succeeds in creating an atmosphere and sucking you in to her tales. However, contrary to popular opinion, I didn’t enjoy this collection. As I have already said, a key element the majority of these tales share is ambiguity, which can be fine, but these particular stories take this to the extreme; so much so that many of them end abruptly without anything being resolved and oftentimes without anything having happened at all! Apart from the recurrence of James Harris, there seems to be little that ties this group of stories together. For example, on the one hand we have ‘The Lottery’, which is very mysterious and has a shock reveal at the end, and it keeps you hooked and intrigued about what on earth is going on in the little village. However most of the others I would barely qualify as stories at all, and are what I can only describe as random segments of life or filler scenes from a longer novel, and I found this quite infuriating since well over half of the collection is of this nature. The tales that fall into this category include: ‘Like Mother Used to Make’; ‘The Villager’ and ‘An Afternoon in Linen’, amongst others. Even one of the longer ones, ‘Elizabeth’, which initially I thought was pretty decent and intriguing just sort of, well, ended at a really peculiar point in the story and I was left feeling thoroughly dissatisfied with it.

Despite the negatives there are some enjoyable stories in this collection: the title story ‘The Lottery’ was brilliant, and I would also recommend ‘The Daemon Lover’; ‘The Witch’; ‘The Renegade’ and ‘Seven Types of Ambiguity’. Even so, apart from ‘The Lottery’ itself, these stories are not anything particularly special, and are not commendable enough as to render the entire collection as good; I felt that the poor stories certainly overshadowed the better ones.

This collection of short stories is generally well reviewed, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Perhaps Jackson is more skilled as a novel writer, because We Have Always Lived in the Castle was truly fantastic and I am still looking forward to the prospect of reading The Haunting of Hill House. Unfortunately though, The Lottery and Other Stories just didn’t do it for me; I found I was bored for most of it, and it was a bit of a struggle to get through. I would, however, recommend reading some of her short stories individually, such as the ones I listed above, but I wouldn’t bother with the entire collection.

Rating: 4/10 as a collection, 9/10 for 'The Lottery' alone.

My other Shirley Jackson reviews:
The Haunting of Hill House

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