‘One Ordinary Day, With Peanuts’ by Shirley Jackson

Now there’s even a biopic about her (haven’t seen it), and I think Shirley Jackson is pretty widely recognised as a brilliant, major writer. But for a long time, it seemed like she was ‘The Lottery’ and that was about it. Of course, ‘The Lottery’ is a great, great story and deserves all the huzzahs it gets. I could have included that one here, too, and been stoned to death a happy man. But just to be interesting (“Too late!” you moan) may I offer for your consideration ‘One Ordinary Day…’.

It’s short, it’s sweet, it’s clever, it’s funny, it’s profound and just a little bit disturbing… all the things that Jackson was so good at stirring together. It’s only about the origin of good and evil in the world – kind of. Read ‘The Lottery’ if you’ve never done so, by all means (and drop a copy of The Haunting of Hill House into your shopping basket while you’re at it.) But sit back and enjoy the Jacksonian whimsy of ‘One Ordinary Day, With Peanuts’.

First published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, January 1955, and collected in Jackson’s (posthumous) Just an Ordinary Day, Bantam, 1996

‘The Lottery’ by Shirley Jackson

Published in the New Yorker in 1948, The Lottery has long been considered the best short story of all time. A small American town performs an annual ritual of running a lottery, where its inhabitants draw lots to see which one will be sacrificed to a death by stoning. Jackson is so skilful in placing the unimaginable firmly in realism, that when first published, some readers were utterly convinced and consequently horrified that this was an actual event in a real town. Truly one of the best short stories I have ever read it makes for tense and deeply unnerving read.  

First published in The New Yorker in June 1948 and available online to subscribers here. Widely collected, including in The Lottery and Other Stories, Penguin 2009

‘The Lottery’ by Shirley Jackson

I stumbled across this one fairly recently and was unprepared for the sucker punch it delivered. I admire the queasiness of its atmosphere and the coolness with which the violence is handled. Like the Kafka and the O’Connor stories, this one made me gasp out loud. As a reader I am drawn to tenderness and restraint in a writer’s prose style. If a story can make me gasp out loud with shock at an action or a turn of events that is surprising yet inevitable and even signalled from the start, all the better.

First published in The New Yorker in June 1948 and available online to subscribers here. Widely collected, including in The Lottery and Other Stories, Penguin 2009

‘Renegade’ by Shirley Jackson

Back to the violence of children: Shirley Jackson is another writer who knew how wicked people, and especially children can be. Her work is deeply entrenched in American Gothic but found within the domestic, the horror of a loveless marriage say or children who can’t wait to punish their bad dog as in this story. It contains all the hallmarks of Jackson’s longer work: mistrustful neighbours, small-town gossip, children who revel in the punishment of others a little too much, a propensity towards cruelness and a killer last line.

First published in Harper’s Magazine, November 1948, and available to subscribers here. Collected in The Lottery and Other Stories, Farrar, Straus and Company, 1949, republished by Penguin Classics in 2009

‘Louisa, Please Come Home’ by Shirley Jackson

Plaintive and haunting in a quieter, more heartbreaking way than the rest of her formidable oeuvre, Jackson takes the trope of the missing woman on the lam and turns it into an exploration of family dynamics, public mourning, and the erosion – and precariousness – of identity.

First published in Ladies’ Home Journal, 1960. Collected in Come Along with Me, Viking, 1968 and, more recently, in Dark Tales, Penguin Classics, 2016

‘Charles’ by Shirley Jackson

“Look up,” he said to his father. “What?” his father said, looking up.“Look down,” Laurie said. “Look at my thumb. Gee, you’re dumb.” He began to laugh insanely.’

This is a story about a boy called Laurie who starts school. Most of his stories revolve around ‘Charles’, another, much naughtier boy in his class. His parents are keen to find out more about ‘Charles’, to meet his parents, and to offer the teacher some moral support. It is only when Laurie’s mother attends a parent-teacher evening that we realise the truth about ‘Charles’.

I tend to teach this story alongside Jekyll & Hyde, for fairly obvious reasons. Why does Laurie invent Charles? Do you think Laurie will continue to talk about Charles now he has been found out? Has Laurie changed as a result of starting school, or was he always like this really?

First published in Mademoiselle in 1948. Collected in The Lottery and Other Stories, FSG, 1949