One Story Magazine recently listed their top ten favorite short stories, along with an additional twenty-six stories to flush out the “long list.” Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery made the long list. This summer, I am reading or re-reading the stories and writing notes on each piece. This is the 20th or 36 stories on the list. Throughout all my years of schooling, I have to admit I’d never pulled the paper with the dot. I had never read The Lottery until about five years ago. Apparently this story is a high school classic, and I’m surprised that I had not read it. Do Catholic Schools not have this story in the curriculum?
Anyway, I had not read The Lottery until just a few years ago, and I can recall where I was when I read it and how chilling it was. The slow unfurling of events through this story are so subtle, the kids playing with rocks, the adults showing up in the town square and chatting amiably, Mrs. Hutchinson showing up late, claiming she’d forgotten what day it was.
As a writer, what I learned by reading this story is the “slow reveal.” Draw out the tension, hold back on the key details to build the suspense. Jackson breaks down the lottery into two rounds which supplies time to draw the tension out further.
“Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.” The townspeople have believed the lottery leads to a bountiful harvest even though the lottery has nothing to do with results in the field. This superstition held by the townsfolk is what makes this piece so ominous. The town becomes a pack of wolves based on their superstition. Common sense would lead one to ask, why should I go to the lottery? But they go and participate because everyone else does. Like sheep. The sparseness of this story also allows it to stand the test of time.
It’s also interesting to read about the controversy surrounding the short story. When the story was first published in The New Yorker in 1948, readers were aghast at the story. Jackson and the magazine received hate mail and readers cancelled their subscriptions. It all seems so quaint now, that a short story could have such an effect on readers. Although we’ve come a long way with complex tales, this story still holds up as a classic.