By Kate Garrett
The UK’s Best Selling Poet (some days) tells us about her favourite scary book – The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson
As far as horror goes, the stories that get to me most are the ones that seem innocuous enough, but crawl into your ear with a creeping whisper and make a spider’s nest inside your brain, shivers still hatching days, sometimes years, later. Enter Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery and Other Stories – my favourite scary book out of dozens of favourite scary books. I considered novels by Stephen King, James Herbert, Phil Rickman, Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker, and Dean Koontz, but this Shirley Jackson short story collection has to be The One.
The fear in Shirley Jackson’s short fiction is the fear lurking in the everyday, in suburbs and office blocks and little villages. Children are integral to the scare factor in several stories, from the naughty little boy Laurie in ‘Charles’ to Jack and Judy’s matter-of-fact relaying a neighbour’s murderous plans in ‘The Renegade’. Other stories in the collection simply feel off-kilter: blips in a character’s mental health, interactions at social gatherings, and incidents of subtle racism and misogyny (always shown for the glaring nastiness they are) crop up in ways the reader doesn’t expect. The frights you find here are strokes from a skeletal finger rather than a hack-and-slash with a machete.
One of the slickest aspects of this collection is a recurring character called James Harris. Harris weaves in and out of several stories as anything from a lawyer to the owner of a dusty bookshop. He’s never the same man twice. Sometimes he’s a distant acquaintance or merely a name on someone’s lips. Sometimes he’s there even when he isn’t there. If someone wrote a drinking game for this book, the appearances of James/Jamie/Jim/Mr Harris alone would be an excellent way of getting suitably smashed and spooked this Halloween. (I’ll get right on that…)
The title story, ‘The Lottery’, is a classic in the realms of the shocking twist. For this reason I won’t write any spoilers for anyone who might not have read it yet. I first encountered ‘The Lottery’ and ‘Charles’ in high school, and they lodged themselves under my eyelids for the rest of eternity. When I finally picked up the entire collection a few years ago, many of the other stories had the same effect. Perhaps the scariest story for me involves a young man’s much coveted book – one that he visits in the shop, but would never be able to afford – being snapped up out of spite by a rich couple who will never read it. But I ask you: is a simple short story about a man getting uninvited from his own flat enough to keep you awake at night? What about a conversation between a man and a four year old boy on a train? Or the consequences of a housewife’s routine tooth extraction? Probably not, I know. But if they’re written by Shirley Jackson – and of course, they are – you’d be very unwise to write off the possibility of horror in the mundane.