Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Shirley Jackson and a sense of "dis-ease".

c. David Grim (8/28/10)

Do you remember the short story, "The Lottery"? You probably had to read it in school. Written by American author Shirley Jackson, it concerns a village of approximately 300 inhabitants that gathers once a year in the town square to randomly select one of its members for a truly special fate. For most of its length, the reader gets a glimpse of what the process entails without any knowledge of the ultimate purpose of the lottery. People mill about and engage in the typical small talk that one associates with the "small-town" milieu. Everyone knows each other, and passively engages in a tradition without really questioning whether or not its function is still appropriate in the modern age.

I just finished reading a collection of Jackson's short stories that I picked up based upon my memory of reading "The Lottery". Some years ago I had a dream to which I (perhaps mistakenly) attributed the inspiration of this tale. In my vision, a pack of semi-feral children were pursuing me through a placid little villa. I had been chosen to be the prey, and I desperately tried to escape whatever ugly fate awaited me. The feeling of being singled out and chased for some unidentifiable reason was palpable. Truth be told, I guess I have that sensation more often than I care to admit... especially when I am well outside my element (i.e. away from the city).

While I expected there to be more outright horror in Jackson's oeuvre, I was struck by the subtle tones of unsettled existence running through most of her stories. There is a seeming preoccupation with being observed by one's neighbors and found wanting. Her characters are obsessed by the feeling that they themselves are the aliens, and once identified, they will be ostracized from the communities they live in... or perhaps they are in for a far worse fate than that. There is the sense that they could be torn to pieces gradually without realizing that it is happening... until there is no longer any possibility of escape. Somehow this image resonates with me right now. It's strange just how often what we read seems to uncannily mirror our internal states. Do you suppose we come about this eerie sympathy with the external through some unconscious process?


  1. Glad to see you back, and doing book/author reviews again. I often find passages in books that relate to what's happening in my life, or bring out memories from time past. I've thought how great it would be had I jouranlized selected interesting or self-related passages from all the books I've read. And yes, sometimes it IS too late to start.

  2. I can't think of a reason why it would ever be 'too late' to start journaling. Time to write and willingness to do so would be the two main preconditions, as far as I'm concerned.