Domesticated Animals (Updated)


I’ve been meaning to make this post ever since Carrie pointed out last month that Shirley Jackson’s "The Lottery" was published in the New Yorker on June 26, 1948, making this year the 60th anniversary of its appearance. "The Lottery" is wrapped up in strange memories for me that involve a high school production of the one-act play adaptation, one I dropped out of in semi-scandal after a conflict with the director. I could be such a diva back then–although in retrospect, this occasion still justified it.

Despite this debacle, I immediately took to Jackson’s work and started making my way through it (my favorite remains We Have Always Lived in the Castle). Last year, I discovered the library had the Folkways album of her reading "The Lottery" and "The Daemon Lover," and I highly recommend seeking it out if you’re a fan. (Or just clicking that link and downloading the mp3s.)

Wikipedia offers the following snippet from Jackson about the aftermath of publishing "The Lottery":

Curiously, there are three main themes which dominate the letters of that first summer–three themes which might be identified as bewilderment, speculation, and plain old-fashioned abuse. In the years since then, during which the story has been anthologized, dramatized, televised, and even–in one completely mystifying transformation–made into a ballet, the tenor of letters I receive has changed. I am addressed more politely, as a rule, and the letters largely confine themselves to questions like what does this story mean? The general tone of the early letters, however, was a kind of wide-eyed, shocked innocence. People at first were not so much concerned with what the story meant; what they wanted to know was where these lotteries were held, and whether they could go there and watch.

Anyone else surprised we don’t have a reality show based on this concept?

A couple of months ago at a used bookstore I finally picked up the collection of her pieces (some published as short stories back in the day, I believe, though all with at least the sheen of autobiography about them) concerning domestic life, the dual edition of Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons. I’ve found the essays crisp, brilliant little treats, and have been working hard to progress through the volume slowly, rather than in one big gulp. Don’t you just love a writer with range?

Here’s the beginning of the first essay:

Our house is old, and noisy, and full. When we moved into it we had two children and about five thousand books; I expect that when we finally overflow and move out again we will have perhaps twenty children and easily half a million books; we also own assorted beds and tables and chairs and rocking horses and lamps and doll dresses and ship models and paint brushes and literally thousands of socks. This is the way of life my husband and I have fallen into, inadvertently, as though we had fallen into a well and decided that since there was no way out we might as well stay there and set up a chair and a desk and a light of some kind; even though this is our way of life, and the only one we know, it is occasionally bewildering, and perhaps even inexplicable to the sort of person who does not have that swift, accurate conviction that he is going to step on a broken celluloid doll in the dark. I cannot think of a preferable way of life, except one without children and without books, going on soundlessly in an apartment hotel where they do the cleaning for you and send up your meals and all you have to do is lie on a couch and–as I say, I cannot think of a preferable way of life, but then I have had to make a good many compromises, all told.

Lovely, isn’t it? And that’s just her warming up.

Updated: Ellen Datlow reminds me that there’s a benefit for the newly created Shirley Jackson Awards tomorrow evening at the KGB Bar. A whole bunch of tremendously talented authors will be reading Jackson’s work. Check it out if you’re in the neighborhood. Oh, and the winners of the first year’s awards were announced last weekend at Readercon, too. A round of yays to the deserving winners.

9 thoughts on “Domesticated Animals (Updated)”

  1. I know! Now what I want most in life is a double feature of the musical version of Stephen King’s Carrie and The Lottery ballet.

  2. I can’t remember when I read “The Lottery” – it was in school and I’m thinking the 10th grade or so. What I do remember is that it really freaked me out. Years ago I seem to recall seeing a Twilight Zone type episode of it. Or who knows, maybe I’ve just created a movie in head about it after being so stunned.
    I have never read her other books about domestic life, always meant to though. After this little snippet you’ve posted I just added them to my Powells list!

  3. It has been filmed a few times…I might have seen the earliest version: Larry Yust’s short film, The Lottery (1969), produced as part of Encyclop√¶dia Britannica’s “Short Story Showcase” series.
    But I’m not sure.

  4. When I was a senior in college, I took a class called “Writing About Film.” During one class period, we watched some movie version of The Lottery over and over and over. We must have watched the thing in its entirely like five times. It’s the creepiest film. I don’t know if the one I saw is the one that Ellen mentions in her comment.

  5. I believe I saw the same version in a Lit and Film class I had in college, Laryssa. I think what Jules and I want is The Lottery ballet on film — now, that, I bet would be insane. I’ve heard that the Carrie musical occasionally shows up on VHS on ebay and goes for hundreds of dollars.

  6. For a great U.S. writer, Shirley Jackson is shamefully underdiscussed; and only, what, two of her six novels are in print? Glad to see this mention of her.
    If you want to learn how miserable her home life really was, check out the initial chapters of Daryl Hattenhauer’s book about her work –turns out Stanley Edgar Hyman was an abuser, and Jackson used pills and alcohol to cope.

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