Okay, so this is one lottery I would rather not win. I'm sure I read Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" at some point when I was younger, but I had forgotten just what possessing the winning ticket meant. I found the story in 50 Great Short Stories edited by Milton Crane, which I've gotten a lot of usage out of so far. In case you've not yet read The Lottery, you can find it online here.
Shirley Jackson was an American author (1916-1965) who grew up in an affluent neighborhood in California and later moved to New York. She attended university where she worked on the the college's literary magazine and met her husband, future literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman. They eventually settled in Vermont. She was a very private person, not caring to talk about her personal life or her work. She is quoted as saying, "Our major exports are books and children, both of which we produce in abundance." I read that both Neil Gaiman and Stephen King were influenced by her work.
Spoilers to follow.
June 27th was a clear and sunny summer day. In an unnamed but clearly average American small town, the villagers begin to gather for the annual lottery. First the children and then the adults make their way to the town square where they joke and laugh. In a corner sit a pile of stones. The lottery has been held for longer than most people can remember. It's a tradition that no one questions and everyone participates in. There are about 300 people and the head of each household will draw from the black box. The lottery is conducted by a respected man of the community who runs the town's coal business. The townspeople are anxious to get the lottery going as it will take a couple of hours to accomplish and they'd like to finish by the midday meal and get on with their day. Each person draws a slip of paper and holds on to it until everyone has had their turn. Then they open their ticket and someone will have a paper with a black spot on it. The "winning" family gets to draw again. Each family member, children and adults alike draws a paper and the lucky winner gets, you guessed it, stoned to death by their neighbors. The stoning or sacrifice will ensure a good harvest. How primal is that?
What's so chilling about this story is the sort of deadpan way it is presented as if this is the most normal everyday sort of occurrence and is accepted by everyone. The lottery is just another chore to take care of between washing the breakfast dishes or hanging the laundry on the clothesline and setting the table for lunch. Of course the winning ticket holder, in this case a wife and mother, doesn't so easily accept the outcome and cries the unfairness of the drawing. Only a few hours earlier she was a willing participant until she was chosen. So the villagers choose their stones and the fun begins.
This story was published in The New Yorker on June 26, 1948. It caused quite an uproar and the magazine received hundreds of negative phone calls and letters and many even canceled their subscriptions. Even Jackson's parents were disappointed by the story. Jackson's response to the criticism:
"Explaining just what I had hoped the story to say is very difficult. I suppose, I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village to shock the story's readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives."
Not surprisingly this story has made the most often banned list. It's an excellent, although disturbing story. Sometimes disturbing is a good thing though, it gives you more to think about. I'm planning on reading more of Shirley Jackson's work this fall (already contemplating what to read for Carl's annual RIP Challenge in October). If you've not read it, I highly recommend it.