Six Degrees of Separation: From The Lottery to The Resident

September has flown by and suddenly it’s the first Saturday of October. Which means it’s time for Six Degrees of Separation, hosted as ever by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best.

October ends on Hallowe’en, making it the spookiest month, and our starting point for this month’s chain is a Shirley Jackson short story, The Lottery (available online here).

A heads up – I’m thinking a lot about Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa this week, two women brutally murdered by opportunistic men while simply going about life in a way we should all be free to, regardless of gender, but that women are conditioned to feel at risk doing. So there’s a flavour to my choices this month.

The Lottery is a story filled with tension from the off, with the residents of an unnamed village gathering for their annual lottery. I was struck by the gender roles that everyone took, from the young boys playing rambunctiously and the girls gathered quietly, to the men as heads of their families and their households, the women as secondary citizens, and the female voice of dissent ultimately silenced. The social bonds and their stress points put me in mind of the shory story An Oral History of Margaret and the Village by Matthew and Five Others in Tom Cox’s collection Help The Witch.

An Oral History of Margaret and the Village by Matthew and Five Others is part direct reminiscence of childhood, part oral history excerpts, and examines the way those who are considered slightly different can make the comfortable feel discomfort, and how easy it can be for the comfortable to turn their fear of discomfort into an attack. It’s also about the way some are more free than others to exercise their perceived social rights.

There’s another link between Cox and Jackson – Help The Witch won a Shirley Jackson Award for a novelette in 2018.

I could jump that way in my chain and seek out other winners of the SJA, but I’m going to stick with short stories. I’m heading to my personal queen of unsettling fiction, Flannery O’Connor. The matter of fact tone of Jackson’s tale put me in mind of O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find, available online to read here and to listen to, read by the author, here.

The story shines a light on the niceties of social convention, the stories we tell ourselves to make horrors less horrific, particularly when we are women and feel the need to somehow change the outcome by being personable and good in the face of male threat, alongside the tensions between classes of people and the narrow distance between definitions of honourable behaviour. It’s the building inevitability that connects O’Connor’s work and Jackson’s most strongly, I feel.

There’s a similar sense of inevitability present in the opening story of María Fernanda Ampuero’s collection Cockfight.

Auction, available to read online here, is a cautionary tale about the normalisation of human trafficking, much as The Lottery is about the normalisation of pointless sacrifice. There is a similar building of tension as the reader gradually becomes aware of what is going on. There’s a more modern nastiness to Ampuero’s tale, though. Jackson stops at a point where imagination can take over. Ampuero leaves little to the imagination. Re-reading the story today, so soon after the details of Sarah Everard’s abduction and murder, and the details beginning to emerge about Sabine Nessa’s killing, Ampuero’s story felt slightly less fictional than the first time I read it.

A story that tries to be more light-hearted in its view of the inherent violence of the male gaze is Annabel Banks’s Harmless, part of her collection Exercises in Control and available to read here. The narrator’s reference to the lip-twist she unconsciously does in awkward situations calls back to the chatter of the grandmother in O’Connor’s story: women sending signals in the hope of deflecting men from their intended path. There’s a delicious payoff to Banks’s story, the sort of cartoon denouement most women who have been catcalled can appreciate. To lighten the tone a little, and make a link from the avenging humour of Harmless, my next short story is a ghost story that carries a whimsical tone almost to the end.

I read Vernon Lee’s Oke of Okehurst in Angela Carter’s Wayward Girls and Wicked Women. It’s also known as The Phantom Lover. You can read it online under the latter title here. This tale has a very slow build, but its ending made me gasp out loud when I first read it. An artist recounts how he was commissioned to paint the portraits of a married couple, the Okes. The husband is made out to be somewhat under the thumb of the wife, due to the restrictions of her delicate constitution, but she is as much a prisoner of circumstance as he is. The artist is forced to bear witness to their circling symbiotic madness, with tragic consequences.

From Oke of Okehurst I’m making a link to The Resident, a psychological thriller in Carmen Maria Machado’s collection Her Body and Other Parties. This story documents a writer’s descent into madness during a residency at an artists’ colony. There’s a theme of gaslighting, as other residents at the colony try to persuade her that what she’s experiencing isn’t real, and she’s only playacting being mentally disturbed. It’s part of a suite of stories that examines how women’s bodies are treated as not being entirely our own.

And that’s my chain. I feel quite drained, I don’t know about you. I’m off to explore other bloggers’ selections now, in the hope of finding something more elevating. Why not join in? Can you create a chain of six to hang from the starting book? Head over to Kate’s blog to find out what other readers have chosen.

20 thoughts on “Six Degrees of Separation: From The Lottery to The Resident

  1. You hit two stories – The Lottery and A Good Man is Hard to Find – that have already left an indelible impression – I’m both attracted to and not sure I can take the remaining ones. Excellent juxtaposition. Just watched Shirley on Netflix (?) the other night, which led me to read more about Jackson, and to be startled she had four children.

    I write under my own name (and asked the husband long ago if he would mind), but otherwise hadn’t really thought about the burden to the offspring – and I write ultimately upbeat mainstream fiction! Huh.

    Thanks for an interesting start to my day.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ll have a look on Netflix for Shirley, thanks for the tip off Alicia. I hadn’t read anything by her until I read The Lottery this morning. I know titles of her books, of course, just never got round to her. I’m interested to read something long form.

      Interesting thought about the impact a writer’s public output might have on their children. It’s not anything I’ve ever considered before.

      I’m glad you found my chain interesting.

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      1. I read The Lottery long ago, in a high school or college anthology of American Literature – as a kid in Mexico in the 60s. My grandmother had been a teacher, and they were at her house, and I had lots of time to read and no material in English.

        I assumed all American kids had read it – but my husband looked at me blankly when I asked him, educated in the States in a Catholic high school. I made him read it years ago. I don’t think you can forget some things.

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  2. What an interesting, timely and thought-provoking list. On an entirely flippant note, most of these would have attracted me from the cover alone (I’m so shallow!). The O’Connor and the Cox are perhaps the ones I shall look for first, but I think all these make the TBR list.

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    1. That’s good to hear, Margaret, especially about O’Connor. I love her work so much, and she was an interesting individual as well. There are a number of different anthologies of her stories, but the one I have is from the Women’s Press. You might need to seek out a second hand copy of that one, I’m not sure.

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  3. Enjoyed your chain. I read a lot of Flannery O’Connor in HS but never enjoyed her as much as other members of my family. However, I feel bad that she is suddenly on the PC hit list, wrongly, I think.

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    1. Thanks, Constance! Yes, I think O’Connor’s been unfairly targeted, too. But it’s easy for me to argue for a white writer because I’m white and don’t have personal knowledge of the impact of white writers describing Black people. My sense is that O’Connor’s depictions of the racial divide in mid-20th century Georgia is satirical, an attempt to show how ridiculous and despicable her white characters are in their feelings towards Black people. I wrote about how re-reading her offensively titled short story about a white man schooling his son in racism made me feel last year https://thinkaboutreading.wordpress.com/2020/06/03/a-circle-in-the-fire-and-other-stories/. To me, it’s a complex issue, bound up with not wanting a favourite writer to be racist, but I do understand the centuries old hurt that Black people carry because of the way white society has treated and continues to treat them.

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  4. Lovely chain–I’ve read the O’Connor, and some of the others are on my TBR. I enjoyed participating in this meme, but the visiting is just as good as the writing. Thanks for this!

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    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it, Damyanti. It’s fun to do, but most of the pleasure is in seeing where other readers travel in their chains, and chatting with people in the comments. It’s the only meme I take part in.

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  5. This is one powerful chain, Jan. I feel drained from reading it! You raise a number of things which will keep me thinking. That’s always a good thing.

    O’Connor is a writer I have so often come close to reading and yet never have. Perhaps this will nudge me into taking that first step. Tom Cox, on the other hand, is a writer I very much wish I could read more of but I find his chatty style needs time and I run out of patience. (This amuses me greatly, knowing full well how I ramble on myself!) Perhaps in a short story he is more constrained?

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    1. I really recommend listening to O’Connor reading A Good Man is Hard to Find, Sandra. I love her writing. It’s wry and perfectly observed, and even though most of her characters are in some way grotesque, she keeps them human, not caricatured.

      We have discussed Tom Cox before, I remember you saying that you find his chatty style too much. His short story collection is still in his voice, but it’s fiction and so has a trajectory that is different to his non-fiction. He does atmosphere very well and, in the story called Just Good Friends, demonstrates an understanding of what it is to be a woman that I’ve rarely found among male writers. It used to be available online, but the magazine that published it folded, sadly.

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      1. I knew I’d talked about Tom Cox somewhere, Jan! Thank you for these tips on his writing and on O’Connor’s. I’m looking forward to following them up.

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  6. Wonderful chain Jan. I love short stories, and thought about doing all short stories, but didn’t. You have tempted me to want to read every one. I may have read A good man is hard to find, though I have a feeling it has been recommended to me and is still in a printout somewhere waiting for me to get to it.

    I really liked the way you honed in on the gender stuff in The lottery. Of course, it was what you’d expect for the times, but your point about the female voice of dissent being ultimately silenced is a good one!

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    1. Thanks, Sue! I’m glad the stories I chose have tempted you. Most of the ones that I’ve chosen are only a click away and, being short stories, are the ideal length to read over a cuppa. I hope you find something you like, and would recommend hunting out your copy of A Good Man is Hard to Find.

      I’m still thinking about the gender divide represented in the story. You’re right, it was of its time, and that time was just after women had experienced some social freedoms during the Second World War, making me wonder whether Jackson had half an eye on what would emerge 15 or so years later as second wave feminism. I haven’t found any analysis yet that goes beyond a focus on broader social change. There must be something out there!

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