Six Degrees of Separation: from The Lottery to …

Time again for Six Degrees, the only thing keeping this blog alive for the moment. Grateful thanks to Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest who does all the organising for this monthly feature.  The background can be found here.

I have not read The Lottery (1948), the starter book this month.  Had I been asked a few weeks ago I would have said with confidence that I’m unlikely to pick up anything by Shirley Jackson despite her work appearing regularly on my bookish radar.  A sweeping and unfair dismissal I accept, but what I hear of her work has never appealed. 

Nonetheless, in the interests of Six Degrees I read a little about the story that will begin this month’s chain and in the days which followed I’ve found myself wondering. This month’s starter is a short story and readily available to read for free.  It has been described as one of the most famous short stories in American literature. Perhaps I should read it?  Maybe I will read it.  Will it still have that shock factor since I now know what is to come?  Perhaps it’s better that it doesn’t. My chain has been constructed without having read it, so it’s best, I think, to leave the story unread until the chain has been written.  Then we will see.  Meanwhile, given the time of year, the direction of this month’s chain has been set from the start. 

Immediately I began investigating Shirley Jackson’s infamous story it chimed with a novel I had just finished reading.  Both are set in a small town in summer, both feature mob mentality.  Both give rise to the phrase: summer gothic. Thus we move from small town America in The Lottery to small town Ireland in The Beauty of Impossible Things by Rachel Donohue.  I’m sure that Jackson’s iconic story carries more shock value than Donohue’s quiet novel but the latter has value and impact too.  It’s a coming-of-age tale which explores the mother-daughter relationship between Natasha and her bohemian mother as they are forced together, isolated in genteel poverty in a crumbling ancestral home above the town.  Among other things it explores how we deal with our sense of ourselves alongside the pain of otherness and how far we will go in our desire to belong.  A melancholic read of longing and regret; I found it quietly haunting.

A small diversion now to ponder on the current penchant for long titles.  It seems to me to be an ever-increasing trend and it frequently irritates me.  Not enough to stop me from choosing a book perhaps, but I find myself more impressed by a short, pithy title than those which present me with an essay before I’ve left the front cover. 

That said, there have always been long titles and my next link is a classic example. Moving from summer to the coming of autumn and moving back to small town America, Ray Bradbury’s classic Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962) takes its title from a quote from Macbeth and it’s surely iconic.  Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine is a favourite of mine.  Something Wicked remains in idyllic Green Town but here the town is presented in a very different light.  Mostly it’s presented in the dark in fact, with the coming of the ghostly carnival led by the malevolent Mr Dark himself.  Just who is he and what does he want?

I have this as an audiobook and this will be the year that I finish it.  I’ve started it more than once – always around this time of year of course. Just as the tension builds, filling me with foreboding as the mysterious carnival reels in the two young boys, something happens in life and by the time I’m ready to resume the narrative the moment has passed.  Autumn, Hallowe’en, the gothic season – all have passed.  The tension broken, it’s just not the moment to find out how the story ends.  Another year, the season rolls around again but of course I must start the story again to get the full effect and so it goes, year after year.  I’m trapped in my own unending circle of wicked somethings it seems.  But THIS will be the year that I’ll get to the end.  

I digress.  Back to the chain.  There’s no question about remaining with the gothic theme and I’m still musing about long titles.  Which leads me to a book I haven’t read.  Rather than her more famous The Essex Serpent, my next link is to Sarah Perry’s debut novel, After Me Comes the Flood (2014).  It’s not particularly well-reviewed on Goodreads but just reading the synopsis gives me shivers.  We’re in England now, on the Anglian marshes in a sweltering stultifying heatwave which reminds me of the summer we visited Donohue’s Irish town.  Unable to bear the oppressive heat, John Cole closes his bookshop early and drives out of London to visit his brother.  His car breaks down on a lonely road and he knocks for help on the door of a dilapidated house. Where the occupants know his name and are apparently expecting him…

”Someone had broken the spine of a book and left it open on the lawn, and near the windows rosebushes had withered back to stumps.  A ginger cat with weeping eyes was stretched out in the shade between them, panting in the sun.”

We are back to summer gothic.  I’m hooked regardless of the critics and I’m convinced I will love it.  I feel the same about my next link.

Weathering (2015) by Lucy Wood has been on my tbr since I read her lingering collection of short stories, Diving BellesWeathering is another exploration of mother-daughter relationships and another featuring a crumbling old house.  Sarah Perry(1) offers it as a superb example of contemporary gothic.  I’m so pleased that her article has reminded me of it.  Even better, there is a copy available in my local library so I’ll be reading this one soon. 

There is, inevitably, a dilapidated and isolated house (this time located in a Devon valley) to which Ada returns with her daughter, Pepper, after an absence of thirteen years.  She has returned to ready the house for sale and scatter the ashes of Pearl, her mother, in the river which runs past it.  But Pearl never left the house and she is not ready to leave now …

“Rain like feet stamping.  A few fat drops slipped down Ada’s back as they ran to the house.  It soaked her coat, her hair.  Puddles gleamed at her feet.  She had forgotten this: the sudden squalls, hail to sun, gales to downpours, drizzle to fog.  She turned and made sure Pepper was behind her.  She was lagging – gloom had descended on her as suddenly as the weather.”

It was inevitable that my next link should relate to weather.  What better example than Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1847), the house set on storm-wracked moors amid wild winds and tempestuous relationships?  The very title foreshadows what the reader might expect: wuthering meaning a strong roaring wind rattling around the chimney tops.  I was delighted when we moved here to experience wuthering for myself but I was disappointed in the book. I found it improbably over-dramatic; any romance in the story passed me by and I knew little of the gothic genre.  I wonder now, if I chose to read it again, whether I would appreciate it more? 

We remain in Yorkshire for the final link and continue to play with weather words with another recommendation from Sarah Perry.  She lists Fludd (1989), an early novel by Hilary Mantel, as a book she wishes she had written.  A small, bleak town on the edge of the moors, rife with superstition, religious indignation and narrow minds, it was a dark and stormy night when a stranger knocked on the door.  An innocuous looking man with a dog collar stood on the doorstep.  A priest then?  Perhaps not.

Fludd becomes another book I very much want to read and elements bring to mind Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner.  But a priest who is not what he seems, a housekeeper named Mrs Dempsey? How can I not also think of Du Maurier’s gothic fiction?  (Thus far I’ve kept her away from the chain.  Were another link required, it would inevitably have been to one of her books.)

But now the chain is forged.  Via various small towns and one or two wilder places, with a predictable miscellany of gothic tropes, it has slithered sinuous through stifling sunshine, drenching rain, dark and stormy nights, wild and seductive winds.  Claustrophobic tension and presentiment abound. And the chain has come around to meet its own tail. The Lottery and Fludd share more than a small-town location. Each speaks of groups who blindly uphold traditions, perpetuating behaviours without thinking of the consequences which may ensue.

I think perhaps, I will read The Lottery. And a reread of Wuthering Heights might prove worthwhile. I will definitely finish Something Wicked This Way Comes. I’ll collect Weathering from the library this week. And I’ll seek out Fludd and After Me Comes the Flood. Normally my tbr grows from reading the chains written by other contributors. This month it’s grown through my own efforts. Sinister magic afoot methinks!

(1) The article I refer to is here

54 thoughts on “Six Degrees of Separation: from The Lottery to …”

  1. A suitably chilling selection of books. Like you, I have noticed an increase of long and slightly absurd titles: The Pains and Joys of the Rara Girls in the Meadows, or The Small Everyday Joys of Marcia Flood (I’m making these titles up). I suppose it’s a change from all the Wives or Daughters we were getting in book titles a couple of years back…

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        1. Although I was vaguely aware of your involvement with publishing and translating, I confess to not taking proper account of it. Other issues taking centre stage I suppose. But thank you! Now you’ve reminded me, I’ve just been looking at the Corylus website and I’m hooked. You prove my point: one word titles grab the attention far more than waffly phrases. I’m excited. It won’t be just yet, but come the new year, I’ll be trying my first Corylus!

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          1. Hurray, I hope you enjoy it when you get to it. Yes, at the most two words! (And starting a publishing house right at the start of a never-ending pandemic was not the brightest idea we ever had, but hey-ho…)

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  2. I always enjoy reading your chains! I hope you do manage to finish Something Wicked This Way Comes this year. I read it a few years ago and I think it’s a perfect October read. Sorry you were disappointed by Wuthering Heights – it’s one of my favourite classics, but I can understand why people dislike it!

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  3. Lovely chain and I enjoyed your digressions. I can’t hear “Something Wicked This Way Comes” without thinking of Tommy and Tuppence (By the Pricking of My Thumbs). I must admit, I didn’t know the quote came from Macbeth… 🙄 Haha, never thought about long titles before. Just came across “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” in the library – sure you’d love that one!

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    1. Ha ha, yes! I’ve actually read that one! I’d love to know more about the process of selecting a title for a book. Is it the author’s prerogative or will an editor or publisher insist it be changed to make the book more marketable? I shall investigate further!

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  4. I used to teach “The Lottery” in my college intro class. It provoked great conversations, akin to the ones raised by Ursula LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” Scapegoating never really goes out of style and my students knew that.

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        1. Another classic I’ve yet to read. So many books so little time! I read almost no ‘adult’ classics until I was an adult and even then with little idea of where to start or how to appreciate what I was reading. I’m sure your granddaughter is benefitting from having you as a mentor 😊

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  5. I have felt the gushes of Wuthering Heights beating in my veins during my nascent youth. I have reread it many times since, never felt the same intensity though. Perhaps the wheel of time erodes and dampens the wilderness of emotions.

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    1. Perhaps, Uma. On that basis though, I should have loved it and yet I didn’t. Perhaps because I didn’t like any of the characters. I think at the time I had high expectaions and they weren’t met because the book was not what I expected. Older and hopefully wiser, if I read it again I may find I can appreciate it more.

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  6. Like you, I’m not a natural Jackson devotee, but her story has sparked some interesting chains. Yours is a cracker. I’m not good at Gothic on the whole. The Rachel Donohue appeals however, and I see we have it in our library, so I’ve ‘wish listed’ it. And Fludd was the first Mantel I read, many years ago now. I’ve been a fan ever since. So glad you managed to finish this post and publish!

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    1. I’m looking forward to reading the other chains. As usual, I avoid doing so until I’ve finished writing my own. I’ve never read anything by Mantel – there can be very few who can say that. Perhaps Fludd will get me started. I shall be intrigued to hear what you think of the Donohue if you get to it. It took me some while to decide how I felt about it. Reminds me a little of Anita Brookner’s lonely women novels. I’m not convinced it’s your type of book but who knows!

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    1. Ah, thank you, Derrick! I may not have loved the book but I have always loved the song! Great to experience it again! (Apologies for my intermittent appearances reading your blog; I look in when I can and do hope all is well 😊)

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  7. Enjoyed your manner of linking these, Sandra: I’ve only read (and reviewed) the Bradbury and the Perry (such an atmospheric book, despite being underrated). I regret to say the only Mantel I’ve read is Beyond Black, but that’s another great title to read if you want to be scared out of your wits!

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      1. I read Beyond Black long before I started reviewing but I did really find it a chilling read (my partner couldn’t finish it) — as a seasonal spooky read it’s ideal though!

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    1. Ha ha, thank you! And you’re almost there – Christie’s book is called ‘By the Pricking of my Thumbs’ which is the first half of the Macbeth quote. Thanks for the reminder 😊

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  8. I love your chatty chains Sandra! I haven’t read any of the books except of course WH and my reaction to it is similar to yours, but I must read Ray Bradbury and the quote from the Sarah Perry is very eerie, sounds good to me too!

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    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Jane, I do go on a bit, don’t I! 😄 It’s good to know I’m not alone on WH but I will give it another go one day. Just in case. The Sarah Perry quote sold the book to me. Shivers down my spine!

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      1. I wonder about re reading WH but then there’s so much to read (I’ve got SP and RB on my list now!) I think I might just have to accept that it’s not my kind of book while realising its importance in lit.

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  9. Phew Sandra- what a list. Authors known but apart from WH ( read as a child of course, when there wasn’t much else, and I don’t envisage spoiling the memory by reading it again!), titles little known to me. But then , Gothic is not my forte, with the exception of DDM and Andrew Taylor. Perhaps I ought to pay more attention. I did like Sarah Perry’s Essex Serpent. I shall be interested to hear your views on Fludd. Hilary Mantel I find difficult to read, although the content is wonderful of course. In a survey, she came out as one of the authors who’s works are started by many but finished by few.
    Enjoy this lovely season with it’s invitation to an evening read.
    xxx

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    1. Until recently I would not have seen gothic as my forte either. Or crime for that matter. And now I like both. Our reading journeys are always unfolding 😊 Mine is at least xx

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  10. I enjoyed your chains, Sandra, as always. I’ve already added Dandelion Wine to my list after you recommended it another time but have now added Something Wicked this Way Comes too. The Lottery is very short, if that helps.

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    1. It does, Rose, thank you. I will read it quite soon I think – almost to get it out of the way! Both the Bradburys have been audiobooks for me. I did once get the printed version of Something Wicked from the library and couldn’t get into it at all, possibly because I love the audio versions so much. Both these are very different but linked by the Green Town setting. (There’s a third I believe.) I hope you enjoy them if you give them a try 😊

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  11. I have been waiting for a moment to savour your thread, Sandra. You make a real story of your choices and your chains are such a pleasure.

    I adored The Essex Serpent and intended to borrow After Me Comes the Flood from the library, but somehow haven’t got round to it. I mean to read Melmoth as well. I saw Sarah Perry speak at a Manchester Literature Festival event a couple of years ago, and she was talking about writing Melmoth and her recovery from chronic pain. She has a very wicked sense of humour. I like the sound of Weathering. I trust your and Perry’s recommendation and have added it to my library wishlist.

    I hadn’t realised quite how many attempts you’ve made on Something Wicked. It’s deliciously dark. I read it before I read Dandelion Wine, and was surprised by the contrast between the two. I hope you make it to the end this time!

    I find Hilary Mantel a mixed bag. She’s a writer that I feel I have to be in a particular frame of mind for. I loved Wolf Hall, enjoyed Bring Up the Bodies, but haven’t yet opened up The Mirror and the Light, despite having bought it straight away. I read The Giant O’Brien, which I sort of enjoyed. Beyond Black is on my To Read pile. I hadn’t heard of Fludd before.

    I have never understood the rest of the world’s love for the Brontës. I find them too overwrought. Of the four books I’ve read, the only one I enjoyed was Villette, because the characters seemed less objectionable, more open to happiness.

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    1. My favourite Bronte is Agnes Grey. I haven’t read them all, Villette is still waiting. I can’t say I love what I’ve read though I acknowledge their place in our literary history and can enjoy them for that. I have not read a single book from Mantel – not many booklovers can claim that! So perhaps Fludd will get me strated. Chris(Calmgrove) mentions Beyond Black on this thread. It sounds terrifying! I hope you enjoy Weathering if you get to it, Jan. I’ll be starting it soon I hope.

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  12. I’m not a fan of Wuthering Heights either…I prefer either of Emily’s sisters. The rest of your books I’m not familiar with…Nice chain though.

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  13. A delightfully Gothic chain! Did you read The Lottery? I thought it was good but not quite as mind-blowingly good as its reputation suggests. Having recently ploughed through Wuthering Heights I assure you you will still find it overly dramatic – I got so tired of all the hysteria but it kind of picks up in the second half. I listened to the Patricia Routledge narration of it which is absolutely superb – one of the best narrations I’ve ever listened to. I’m quite sure it was only her wonderful interpretation of the characters that pulled me through the whole thing…

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    1. Not read it yet. But I will and I’m anticipating that I’ll be underwhelmed simply because I’ve built it up too much. That’s a good tip re listening to WH. I may expend a credit on Patricia’s version. I’ve found before that some books work better in certain formats and perhaps she will bring me round. Stranger things have happened.

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