Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery" is one of the most widely anthologized works of fiction by a 20th century American writer and with good reason. It's absolutely terrifying. Don't take my word for it. If you haven't read the story you can Google it. It's short and there are spoilers below.
"The Lottery" chronicles an annual event in a small New England village. Everyone gathers in the town square to draw slips of paper from a black box. Each family selects a representative. Attendance is mandatory. The family that draws the slip of paper with a black circle must come forward and then each member of the family draws again to select the "winner," who is immediately stoned to death by the rest of the villagers. Bummer.
The story focuses on Mr. Summers, the cold-blooded functionary who makes sure the annual event goes down smoothly, and members of the extremely unlucky Hutchinson family, namely the outspoken (i.e. doomed) Tessie Hutchinson.
"Bill Hutchinson went over to his wife and forced the slip of paper out of her hand. It had a black spot on it, the black spot Mr. Summers had made the night before with the heavy pencil in the coal company office. Bill Hutchinson held it up, and there was a stir in the crowd."
The story behind the story is just as interesting. Shirley Jackson came up with "The Lottery" one morning while out for a walk with her young daughter. She wrote a draft in a single sitting later that afternoon, and it took less than two hours to complete. She liked it so much that she made only a few corrections and sent it off to her agent the following morning. Her agent didn't care for the story but forwarded it on to The New Yorker anyway, and it was immediately accepted for publication and published later that month.
The only voice of dissent from the magazine came from its editor, Harold Ross, who didn't understand the story and asked if Jackson would explain it to him.
When he requested that she write a statement to readers who called or wrote to ask about the story, again she refused.
The New Yorker knew its audience. When they published the story on June 26, 1948, the response was immediate.
Readers were angry, befuddled and confused. They demanded explanations and retractions. Mostly they were outraged. Hundreds of readers cancelled their subscriptions to The New Yorker, and many more wrote letters, which the magazine forwarded to Jackson at her home in Vermont. There were so many letters that the postmaster stopped talking to her.
Jackson wrote that after the story was published she couldn't pick up her mail "without an active feeling of panic"—a feeling familiar to modern day writers who publish on websites with active comment sections.
The plot is simple and spare, the style straightforward. Many readers thought "The Lottery" was a true account of a bizarre American cult. The story is written like a modern take on a classic fable rather than the tale of a fantastic future like The Hunger Games, which owes a great debt to Jackson's story.
No reason is ever given for the lottery's existence. There are no vengeful gods to satisfy, no pact with a bloodthirsty enemy to fulfill. The deeds are done for no other reason than that's the way its always been done, and that's what unnerved The New Yorker's readers. They were unable to handle the random nature of the horrible fate that befalls Mrs. Hutchinson and the passivity with which that fate is accepted by the rest of the villagers. Even Mr. Summers is chillingly blasé.
"All right, folks." Mr. Summers said. "Let's finish quickly."
"The Lottery" isn't just a masterful exploration of the tyranny of manners, nor is it about the evil that lurks just below the surface in America's backwoods. The village in which the lottery takes place may seem quaint, but Jackson clearly intended for her readers to see themselves assembled in the square.
Jackson's story addressed a world coming to grips with concentration camps and atom bombs. The story served as indictment of those who would casually turn a blind eye to these new realities because they were too unpleasant to think about.
That's the horror of "The Lottery." Everyone knows what is happening is wrong, and no one does anything to stop it. Jackson's masterpiece endures not because the world is a safer place, but because nothing has changed. We're all a "black circle" away from homelessness, mental illness, medical catastrophe, gun violence or worse.
Worst of all, when it does happen to us, we become invisible to everyone except the Mr. Summerses of the world, and what kind of consolation is that?