For Day 11 of my 30 day short story train (reading for writing ‘013!) I read a dark mystery/thriller. This one is awesomely unsettling and makes me want to write a dystopian short. But judge for yourselves: in this post I include a synopsis, my writing craft observations, a couple new words and a link to the story itself. Enjoy!
“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
Because so much of the ritual had been forgotten or discarded, Mr. Summers had been successful in having slips of paper substituted for the chips of wood that had been used for generations. Chips of wood, Mr. Summers had argued, had been all very well when the village was tiny, but now that the population was more than three hundred and likely to keep on growing, it was necessary to use something that would fit more easily into he black box. The night before the lottery, Mr. Summers and Mr. Graves made up the slips of paper and put them in the box.
It is June 27: the day of the lottery. Immediately we are given a dose of lottery culture: in bigger villages the event can go as long as two full days, but in this small village it will take only three hours; children, and men, and women must assemble for it in the town square. A few of the more rambunctious children, playing, begin to gather up piles of stones.
The lottery is conducted by Mr. Summers, who arrives carrying a black wooden box and sets it upon a stool. The box is old and in shambles: it has been used for as long as anyone can remember, though it is not the first. In fact, the ritual has changed somewhat from its time of conception: they used to use wood chips, but as the village grew the box became too small to accommodate so many pieces; thus, the switch to paper was made. Each year Mr. Summers and the village postman, Mr. Graves, would prepare the slips of paper the night before the lottery.
Much rigmarole is involved in the tradition: each year lists of households and families and head figures must be drawn up, and each year Mr. Summers must be sworn in as the lottery official. Other original parts of the ceremony have faded out.
Mr. Summers takes role. For every person absent, another (a grown son, or a spouse) must draw on their behalf.
Finally, the lottery begins. As per tradition, the men are each called to take a slip of paper from the box and hold it, without looking, until everyone has taken one. It goes by alphabetical order: “Adams,” is called, then “Allen,”; “Andrews,” then “Bentham.” As each man approaches the box he addresses Mr. Summers by first name—Joe—and Summers does likewise. Then each man draws and returns to his family, not looking at his hand.
Meanwhile, there is chatter among gathered adults: a village up north, it is said, is quitting the lottery; in some places the practice has been long since abandoned. Most present shake their heads and say that the young are never satisfied.
“Zanini” is reached, and all the men have drawn. Mr. Summers give the signal and all the men unfold their slips. “Who is it?” the crowd murmurs. “Who’s got it?”
A man—Bill Hutchinson—is identified. He’s got it.
Hutchinson goes quiet; his wife protests, saying Summers didn’t give him as much time as everybody else to draw. The crowd argues back, telling her to be a good sport and that his chance was the same as everyone else’s.
Hutchinson is asked how many children he has. Three, he replies; it is them, himself, and his wife that make up the household. Mr. Graves collects slips and restores them to the box as Hutchinson’s wife continues to protest. Then, with only five papers in the box (including the “it” paper) each family member is made to draw. Then, one by one, they reveal them. Every slip is blank, until the fifth and final one: Tessie, Hutchinson’s wife, has the one with the black dot.
She continues to protest, but already the crowd are gathering stones; the children return to their piles, and then the rocks fly.
“[The adults] stood together, away from the pile of stones in the corner, and their jokes were quiet and they smiled rather than laughed.”
To me, this one line near the beginning says it all: stones in the corner. The adults smile out of necessity, not laughing; this ritual is not a pleasant one, and the stones are an ominous presence. In story craft, many argue that an item such as this can only be used to foreshadow something. This is often referred to as Chekhov’s gun.
If not already adequately stated, the foreshadowing in this story is awesome: the image of children piling stones in a corner reeks of darkness, and even though we can’t articulate exactly what they’re for in the beginning they have been planted in the back of our minds and colored our perceptions.
I LOVE how Jackson kept the driving mystery (What is the lottery for?) all the way until the very end. Stepping back, I see and admire how she started in action on lottery day and only introduced details about the lottery as the story went along. This neatly adheres to what is perhaps one of the most basic, but often overlooked rules of story writing: to not frontload a story with information. It’s just, in The Lottery it is especially effective because withholding a whole-picture explanation makes us readers keep reading.
I LOVE that Jackson built up the tension and darkness as we got closer to the truth. There are plenty of signs along the way: the stones. The way the adults don’t laugh. The uneasy/forced expressions exchanged. Then, when all the men have their cards, the whispers that ripple through the crowd and what is said: “Who has it?” “Who is it?” (Good news would not be whispered); Mrs. Hutchinson’s negative reaction (if it wasn’t clear yet, it’s clear now: “winning” this lottery is not a good thing); and finally, the black dot.
Although, to be perfectly honest, I could not help remembering the black dot from Muppet Treasure Island and having a small giggle afterwards.
perfunctory: carried out with little or no effort or reflection
duly: following procedure or what is appropriate; as might be expected
11 stories down, 19 more to go.