There are few short stories out there that have captured the public’s attention like “The Lottery”. When the story hit newsstands in June of 1948, it sparked a fervor, with many readers believing that it was true. The story helped to establish her reputation as one of the country’s greatest modern horror authors.

Shirley Jackson was born on December 14th, 1916, and grew up around California. Her childhood was a cold one, according to a new biography by Ruth Franklin, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life. Her mother was driven, and “even if Geraldine [Shirley’s mother] had been pleased to have motherhood thrust upon her in her first year of marriage (and by all accounts, she was not) Shirley was hardly the child she had imagined.” Shirley was a natural storyteller and fell in love with works such as Grimm’s fairy tales, L. Frank Baum’s Oz novels, and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan stories, and eventually began to write her own stories, much to her mother’s consternation. “Geraldine had no use for her daughter’s imagination,” Franklin writes. “In a letter sent decades later, she reproached Shirley’ for having been ‘a willful child…who insisted on her own way in everything – good or bad.”

Shirley JacksonFranklin notes that Jackson channeled her anger at her overbearing mother and relatives into her fiction. Then in 1933, the family relocated from California to New York, after her father’s business merged, something that upset Jackson. In 1935, she entered the University of Rochester, only to “experience a mental unraveling during her first two years of college,” and she eventually withdrew.  After recovering, she enrolled in Syracuse University in 1937, where she studied English and became seriously interested in the occult. It was at Syracuse that she began to publish the stories that she had written, and met her husband, Stanley Hyman, who would become a major literary critic. She became the editor of the school’s literary magazine, the Syracusan, and when the school opted to stop printing it, she founded her own magazine with Hyman, Spectre, which Jackson used as a tool to voice her opposition to the discrimination rampant at the school.

In August, Shirley and Stanley married and settled in Greenwich Village after Stanley won an editorial position at The New Republic, and later moved to The New Yorker. Jackson sold her first professional story to The New Republic, “My Life with R.H. Macy”, which appeared in the December 22, 1941 issue. Soon, she had other stories appearing in The New Yorker, such as “After You, My Dear Alphonse” (January 16, 1943), “Come Dance With Me in Ireland” (May 15, 1943), “Afternoon in Linen”, (September 4, 1943), as well as in Story, such as “Seven Types of Ambiguity”, published in the September / October issue.

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In 1945, Hyman was invited to teach at Bennington College in Vermont, and the family (now with children) relocated to the Green Mountain State. “The idea of raising children in Vermont, where they could see ‘real cows’, also appealed to her,” Franklin writes. “Perhaps there, in the country again, she would find her long sought stability, the balm for her restlessness.” She continued to write, selling stories to The New Yorker, and worked on several novels. By 1947, she had finished her first novel, The Road Through The Wall, which new publisher Farrar, Straus published in 1948.

Road through the wall The novel didn’t sell well, but Jackson had some other stories up her sleeve. Jackson had been reading a book about “‘choosing a victim for sacrifice,’” which led her to the central conceit of a new story: “The Lottery”. Jackson wrote the story in March—her own accounts of its creation appear to be false—which she submitted to her agent shortly thereafter. “Details aside,” Franklin writes, “it is stunning to think that this story composed in only a few hours – on this all the accounts agree – has proved to be one of the most read and discussed works of twentieth-century American fiction.”

The story took place in a small, anonymous town (believed to be based on Bennington), where the townsfolk gathered to pull slips of paper out of a box, one by one. By the end of the story, one character has drawn a black dot, and is mercilessly stoned to death by her neighbors. It was an annual ritual that ensured some measure of order in the town, something that had preoccupied Jackson.

The story has echoes of classic Gothic and Puritan stories, such as those from Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the story was quickly accepted to The New Yorker, which published the story in its June 26th issue in 1948. 

Readers who were disturbed and horrified at what they had just read began writing in to the magazine almost immediately. “Within a month, there were nearly a hundred letters, ‘not counting two newspaper columns and ten notes canceling subscriptions,’” as a result of the story. The response was greater than any other story that the magazine had published. Some readers had believed that the story was factual, while others admired it for its dark portrayal of humanity.

The family moved the next year to Connecticut where they entertained a succession of members of the literary community, and Jackson published a collection of her short stories: The Lottery: Or, the Adventures of James Harris. Soon, her fiction tilted into horror with a succession of novels: Hangsaman (1951), The Sundial (1958), The Haunting of Hill House (1959), and We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), each of which contain elements of the supernatural.

10.31_theLottery The Haunting of Hill House has become particularly acclaimed, considered a classic ghost story, and which has been adapted into a pair of films (in 1963 and 1999). These works, as well as “The Lottery”, have established Jackson as one of the twentieth century’s preeminent horror authors. As Franklin notes in her biography, “Jackson’s brand of literary suspense is part of a vibrant and distinguished tradition that can be traced back to the American Gothic work of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Henry James.” Her work was also filtered through an increasingly troubled home life, and her mental state declined in the final years of her life. In 1965, she passed away at the age of 48.

Jackson’s legacy has continued to live on. Numerous authors, such as Stephen King, Richard Matheson, and Neil Gaiman have proclaimed their debt to her stories, and in 2007, the Shirley Jackson Awards were set up with the permission of Jackson’s estate, designed to recognize “outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic.” The awards are handed out annually at Readercon. Nominees walk away with a consolation prize: a pebble engraved with the name of the awards, presumably to stone the winner. “The Lottery” remains one of Jackson’s most popular works. Earlier this month, Hill and Wang released a graphic novel adaptation, illustrated by her grandson Miles Hyman. 

Andrew Liptak is a freelance writer and historian from Vermont. He can be found online at his site and on Twitter  @andrewliptak.