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.