Alison Flood

Hitting the Jackpot

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life


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When Shirley Jackson’s short story ‘The Lottery’ was published in the New Yorker in June 1948, some of its readers, incredibly, believed it to be fact. Set in a village of three hundred people, it tells, in Jackson’s simple, economical style, of a ritual sacrifice in which one villager is chosen by lot to be stoned to death: ‘“It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,” Mrs Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.’

Published three years after the end of the Second World War, just before McCarthyism gripped America and the witch-hunt for communists got under way, ‘The Lottery’ found a febrile readership. Jackson and the New Yorker received hundreds of letters about the tale, many of them antagonistic. Ruth Franklin’s new biography of the author, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, reports Jackson’s claim that ‘only 13 were kind’. ‘Readers wanted’, Franklin writes, ‘to know where such lotteries were held, and whether they could go and watch; they threatened to cancel their subscriptions; they declared the story a piece of trash.’

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