By Carol Howard
If Shirley Jackson had published “The Lottery” at Halloween and warned her readers to expect a chilling tale, she might have spared herself the hundreds of outraged letters she received during the weeks following the story’s actual appearance in June, 1948. Her own, bemused mother asked her, “Why don’t you write something to cheer people up?”
Once the initial public outcry subsided, the shocking story set in a modern agricultural village launched Jackson’s career as the best writer of psychological horror fiction of her era. While some of her explorations of the dark side of the American psyche take place, unremarkably, in cities and towns, Jackson uses bucolic settings—as in “The Lottery” and her novel The Haunting of Hill House— to heighten readers’ sense of disorientation.
“The Lottery” takes place in an idyllic village square, where “the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green.” As farm families in this tale gather for the annual lottery, an event not fully revealed to readers until the closing lines of the story, the men make small talk about “planting and rain, tractors and taxes.” With nostalgia for tight-knit rural communities, readers might suppose that the lottery’s winner will take home a coveted item of farm machinery or perhaps a prize-winning apple pie from the county fair.
The mounting tension of the story, manifested in the characters’ nervous energy, might be attributed to everyday conflicts between traditional values and the busyness of modern life. Only in the final scene do readers realize that the story’s quaint adage, “lottery in June, corn be heavy soon,” describes the superstitious logic of a barbaric ancient rite carried out to ensure a bountiful harvest. Perhaps more disturbing to readers than the ritual lottery itself is the fact that no one in the fictional village thinks to question the morality of this time-honored custom.
Also well-suited to Halloween reading is The Haunting of Hill House (1959), another of Jackson’s works in which a landscape that would normally imbue readers with a sense of tranquillity—a stately manor house surrounded by rolling hills, a sunlit lawn and a babbling brook—instead becomes the terrain of nightmares. Early in the novel, two women visiting the Victorian-era estate decide to venture along a path beyond the grand, wrap-around veranda of Hill House. They come upon a scene of a family enjoying a garden picnic. Here, “the grass was richly, thickly green, the flowers were colored red and orange and yellow, the sky was blue and gold.” The description is picturesque enough, except that it eerily reprises the phrase used to depict the setting of “The Lottery.”
The Hill House visitors suddenly become aware that the family enjoying the picnic are ghosts of a distant past and that the garden is a supernatural mirage distorting the appearance of a depressing patch of weeds. As in “The Lottery,” the apparent serenity of the Hill House landscape is jarringly at odds with the grim drama unfolding in the lives and minds of the characters. The ghost picnic is only the beginning. The novel gets even spookier from there.
Carol Howard is dean of academics at Warren Wilson College. Ruth Franklin’s 2016 biography Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life won the National Book Critics Circle Award.