Saturday, August 11, 2012

Powerball

Like pretty much anyone who went to high school in the United States, I encountered Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" some time in my school career. I played a member of the crowd in a production of the one-act play, where I can still hear the powerful scream of the actress in the lead role. I'm actually not sure if I ever studied the short story, but when I came to the audio version in The Lottery and Seven Other Stories, I already knew the ending.  It still gave me chills. So worth re-reading every decade or so.

"The Lottery" was published in the New Yorker on June 26, 1948 and the magazine still claims it was the most controversial work it ever published. The residents of a small town are gathering in the square to undergo a ritual that has been completed many times before.  Some of the residents chatter a bit about why they are still doing this thing, but they are quickly brought to order by the coal dealer, Mr. Summers.  He stirs pieces of paper collected in a battered old box and the adult men of the town each select a paper. When all the men have picked one, they open them.  A shockingly short time later, the lottery is over.  Just 3,773 words.

The other stories in this collection mostly have that same quiet ordinariness that abruptly turns nasty. Jackson seems to have mastered the craft of the short story in that each story is complete, but you are thinking about them long after finishing them. I particularly liked "Flower Garden" (1949), where a young widow moves with her son to a small town from New York City and is befriended by another mother much cowed by her husband and mother-in-law. When the widow hires a black man to tend her sumptuous garden, the town turns against her. Jackson's luxurious descriptions of the fecund garden and of the sweaty, handsome gardener make it quite clear how the widow has crossed the line. "Pillar of Salt" (1948) was excellent as well: A married couple get the chance to spend some vacation time together in New York, but eventually the wife grows paralyzed by fear as she imagines the city coming apart all around her.

My favorite, though, was "Like Mother Used to Make" (1949). Good friends David and Marcia live across the hall from one another. David loves his apartment -- its bright walls, its matching decor, the tasteful flatware and dishes he carefully saves up for. Marcia has given David a key to her apartment because she is so flighty, and David is repelled by the disorganized mess he discovers there when he lets himself in to leave her a note reminding her he is cooking dinner for her. Marcia is late, but they are having a lovely time when she hears her doorbell buzz. She lets in the caller, who works with her, and invites him to join her in David's apartment. It soon becomes clear that the caller believes he is in Marcia's apartment and Marcia does nothing to dissuade him.  It's delightfully menacing, and like all Jackson's work you finish it wondering exactly what will happen next.

This collection, originally produced on cassette by an outfit called Audio Partners Publishing Corporation in 1998, is narrated by Carol Jordan Stewart. I've heard her read just once before and liked it. Here she reads the stories capably and professionally. She doesn't do a lot of voicing, but she definitely has a feel for how to differentiate between men and women in dialogue. She's chosen to read Jackson's stories with the sense they have of not quite ending, so the way she reads the final sentence is not conclusive (for want of a better term).

And this bothered me for the sole reason that the next story started up immediately. Immediately ... hardly time to take a breath.  There was no pause between them. I needed that moment; I needed to process the fact that the story was over and I needed to know that it was over so that I could press pause in order to process.  This was a download, so pressing pause after the next story begins is problematic, since you aren't re-starting at a new track, you're trying to find your place through the delicate art of "rewinding," an art that I can't seem to effect without clumsiness.

There were also instructions in two places to turn the cassette over that hadn't been edited out in the digitization process. Mostly amusing, yet it did -- like the manual rewinding -- sort of disrupt the flow.

NoveList calls Shirley Jackson a writer of horror, and I agree. It's too bad horror has devolved into slashers, blood and absurdly stupid teenagers. Real horror chills, it doesn't scare; real horror reverberates in your brain, it doesn't make you laugh nervously. Real horror can make you think it can happen to you. I might try one of Jackson's longer works one of these days.

[Here are some Fergus Falls (MN) high school students rehearsing a production of "The Lottery" in 2010. I used to get my picture in the paper like this when I was in plays in high school. It's somehow encouraging to know that the Fergus Falls Journal (from which this photo is taken) still publishes a print paper every day but Saturday and fills it with hometown news.]

The Lottery and Seven Other Stories by Shirley Jackson
Narrated by Carol Jordan Stewart
BBC Audiobooks America (now AudioGO), 2010

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