Classic Horror Literature: The Lottery

by Ashley Lister

The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green. The people of the village began to gather in the square, between the post office and the bank, around ten o’clock; in some towns there were so many people that the lottery took two days and had to be started on June 20th. but in this village, where there were only about three hundred people, the whole lottery took less than two hours, so it could begin at ten o’clock in the morning and still be through in time to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner.

The children assembled first, of course. School was recently over for the summer, and the feeling of liberty sat uneasily on most of them; they tended to gather together quietly for a while before they broke into boisterous play. and their talk was still of the classroom and the teacher, of books and reprimands. Bobby Martin had already stuffed his pockets full of stones, and the other boys soon followed his example, selecting the smoothest and roundest stones; Bobby and Harry Jones and Dickie Delacroix—the villagers pronounced this name “Dellacroy”–eventually made a great pile of stones in one corner of the square and guarded it against the raids of the other boys. The girls stood aside, talking among themselves, looking over their shoulders at rolled in the dust or clung to the hands of their older brothers or sisters.

‘The Lottery’, Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson’s short story is a masterpiece of efficient writing. If you haven’t read it yet, this is a link to an online version, and this is a link to an audiobook version on YouTube.

I’m going to try and keep this spoiler free for those people who can’t be bothered reading or listening to the story, even though I’ve just provided you with the links, you lazy twat. As a synopsis I’ll just say it’s about a ritual lottery in a sunny, rural town in America. However, what starts out cheerful and pleasant grows eerier and eerier, until the horrific purpose of the lottery is revealed in the story’s final paragraphs.

Jackson was 31 years old when she wrote this story and it was published in a 1948 edition of the New Yorker. I think it’s fair to say that the story caused a shitstorm.

The story warns about the dangers of conformity and was the most controversial story published in the New Yorker’s history. Shortly after its publication furious letters flooded the offices from readers outraged that the magazine could publish something so disgusting. Many readers made a point of cancelling their subscriptions and citing Jackson’s story as the reason for that decision.
Jackson was surprised by the outraged responses that her story received but, not surprisingly, she was more appalled by the letters from readers who wanted to know how they could find a lottery to watch themselves.

I think the most appealing thing about this story, for me, is the fact that it’s presented as something unremarkable. Admittedly, Jackson’s lottery is an annual event, but those two paragraphs at the start of this page let us see that it’s no more singular than an easter egg hunt or a harvest festival. We’re looking at a local gathering that, on the surface, seems as innocuous as the erection of a festive Christmas tree in the town square. For me, this is the true horror because nightmare situations like the one described by Jackson don’t come about with melodramatic twists and turns: they come about through the normalising agency of conformity.

If you’ve not read it, check out one of the links above. And, whilst you’re thinking about the story afterwards, try to decide if you would want to cancel your subscription to the new Yorker, or whether you’d want to go and watch the events in real life.

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