When Shirley Jackson’s story “The Lottery” was published in The New Yorker in 1948, readers were flabbergasted. They expressed their flustered outrage by writing letters to the editor; “The Lottery” triggered more mail to the magazine than any other piece of fiction.
Jackson’s story presents a small New England town in which citizens gather once a year for a drawing. Each June 27 in the town square, the head of each household draws a slip of paper from a wooden box.
Families greet each other as they gather; friends tease one another with relaxed banter, and the normalcy of it all can lull a first-time reader into assuming this day will end with a celebration. But slowly, eerily, it becomes clear: The “lottery” determines which villager will be stoned to death by the crowd.
Jackson, who died in 1965 at the age of 48, has emerged from textbooks and anthologies this fall to spring forward in full color. She’s the subject of a major new biography by Ruth Franklin, “Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life.” And now Miles Hyman, her grandson, has adapted her most famous short story as a graphic novel.
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Hyman, who was just 2 when his grandmother died, writes in the introduction that she has loomed large in his family. He grew up surrounded by the books, records and anecdotes that revealed her life to him.
Hyman, who lives in Paris, is an artist and has created several graphic novels, including an adaptation of short stories by O. Henry. But taking on “The Lottery” was daunting, he writes: “The story is such a perfect apparatus that it leaves little room for meddling.”
Hyman doesn’t change his grandmother’s story, but paging through his version is a different experience. He uses far fewer words, often letting images propel the action on their own. And those images, which sprawl across 140 pages, add a moodiness and a sense of context to the story.
The rich artwork removes some of the matter-of-factness that makes Jackson’s story so horrifying — the bloodless way she describes the villagers and their pile of rocks. But Hyman embraces that, using his illustrations to push a little further than his grandmother’s words did. The stoning, for instance, becomes more urgent and real with flowing blood and a cowering victim.
The element of surprise is part of what gives Jackson’s short story its power; Hyman’s version can seem to offer too much foreshadowing. In some ways, though, that makes it all the more horrifying: Laughing villagers suddenly develop tense faces; hands seem to tremble as they open their folded slips of paper to learn their fates. And just as quickly, these uneasy faces merge into a mob as they pick up stones.
Hyman’s illustrated adaptation isn’t designed to modernize, recast or replace his grandmother’s story. In fact, the best way to experience this book is to read Jackson’s piece immediately before, so as not to miss the details Hyman gets right. The randomness of the cruelty, the senselessness of a tradition that destroys — those elements pack a punch in both versions. And in Hyman’s hands, Jackson’s story flabbergasts all over again.
Alyson Ward reviewed this book for the Houston Chronicle.