Review: The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson

I picked this book as a Halloween horror read. What I got wasn’t quite what I expected. While I knew that Shirley Jackson also wrote about everyday and domestic life, her reputation for horror writing far eclipses the rest of her work. In this collection, most stories lean toward the everyday with twists that range from mysterious to creepy.

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It’s important to note that while this book is now known as The Lottery and Other Stories, it originally had a different title: The Lottery or, The Adventures of James Harris. The recurring character of James Harris is sprinkled throughout the book, and he lives a mysterious life. He is always at the peripheral of the lives of other characters, and only very loose connections allow us to form some kind of portrait of him and his life.

He is first named in the second story of the collection, “The Daemon Lover,” having jilted a young woman on their wedding day. Convinced that there is some mistake, she is determined to track him down, but never finds him. This sets the tone for his role in the collection. Whether he is truly supernatural or merely a fantastic conman is left unclear, and even the possible glimpses into his origin are opaque.

A notable aspect of Jackson’s writing is her addressing of racism. She writes of “benevolent” racism from white people who assume all black people are poor, and of neighbors who suddenly drop friends for getting too cozy with a mixed family. She depicts white middle-class “respectable” families with an unflattering eye, exposing the attitudes of those who think that not looking racist is more important than not being racist.

There is a solid mixture of short and long stories in this collection, the longest being “Elizabeth,” which begins around the halfway mark. Elizabeth is a worn-down literary agent having trouble with her business partner, and possibly the most fleshed-out character of the collection. Like many other characters we meet, she is ordinary, understandable, but not the sort of person one would call good. Her story meanders, leaving the reader with neither a positive or negative impression, only curiosity as to what will happen next. This is emblematic of Jackson’s style, which rarely calls on us to like the characters, only to be interested in their doings.

It’s understandable that this book is marketed under the name The Lottery, as the final story of the collection is her best-known short work, but the assumption that the other stories would be very much like it does a disservice to the versatility of Jackson’s writing. Personally, I’m more a reader of novels than of short stories, but I could nonetheless appreciate the quality of each story, and especially how they are curated to create a cohesive, representative body of work. I will definitely be checking out her novels, but I also wouldn’t be opposed to reading her other short story collections.

The Lottery and Other Stories is not what I would label a horror collection, although there are certainly a few horror stories tucked into it–“The Renegade” certainly threw me for a loop. More so than horror, though, it has an air of mystery and of the slightly off-kilter.

I recommend this book for anyone with an appreciation for short stories. With its balance between the normal and the abnormal, it holds something for everyone.

Rating: 5/5 stars.

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Spooky Video Games I Love for Halloween

I’m not much of a gamer, but I do have certain games that I love and come back to time and time again! Today I wanted to share some of my favorite games to play in October. I’ve picked out just four, but it’s a pretty diverse set, so it should be easy to find one you might like!

1. Hollow Knight

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For a game with a dark, moody aesthetic that isn’t actually scary, I love Hollow Knight. You’re a bug-like creature exploring the ruins of what was once a thriving bug civilization. The enemies you fight are mindless zombies, once citizens overtaken by disaster. It’s a game that takes a lot of patience and skill, but the world is huge and gorgeous, so it feels worth it when you finally defeat a boss or maneuver through a tricky piece of platforming.

2. Undertale

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If you’ve played a video game in the past three years, it would be hard to have missed the massive hype around Undertale. This is another Halloweenish game that isn’t too scary… unless you make it that way. You are a human child who has fallen into an underground world of monsters and must find your way back to the surface. It’s easy to play with a cheerful retro aesthetic, so it’s great for beginners, but be careful–your choices matter. If you haven’t played it yet, do it! It’s incredibly refreshing and creative.

3. Detention

Detention

This is one of the only real horror games I’ve played, and it’s terrifying. You’re a student stuck alone inside a school in 1960s Taiwan that’s haunted by spirits and the undead. There are political, cultural, and religious elements that give the story a unique flair, but it can be hard to appreciate that when you’re scared out of your wits. I can only take this game in small doses.

4. Doki Doki Literature Club!

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It may look cute, but Doki Doki Literature Club! is a psychological horror game. Personally, I didn’t find it that scary, but that’s because it doesn’t tick the boxes of things that freak me out–others have said it’s one of the scariest games they’ve ever played. I think it’s a very clever deconstruction of the visual novel genre (even if Hatoful Boyfriend did it better). Do pay attention to the content warnings, though.

Have you played any of these? What are your favorite games to play in October? (Seriously… I’m on the lookout for more horror games.) Let me know in the comments!

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Quick October Book Recommendations

I’m a busy bee this weekend, but I still wanted to put up a post today! Here’s a quick rundown of books I think are great to read in October. It’s a good mix of creepy and fun, so I think there’s something for everyone here!

1. The Vegetarian by Han Kang

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If you love psychological horror and aren’t averse to gore, The Vegetarian will be a gourmet meal for you (ha!). Yeong-hye, an ordinary woman, starts to have intense, bloody nightmares involving meat, and to make them stop, she decides to become a vegetarian. Her traditional family don’t understand the changes in her behavior, and as Yeong-hye’s mental state deteriorates, she faces hostility rather than support from the people around her.

2. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame Smith

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Fan of the classics? Put a spooky spin on it with this fun and campy take on the text of Pride and Prejudice. It sounds like a gimmick, and it is, but it’s also extremely high quality. Confession: I read this version before actual Pride and Prejudice, and it helped me follow the story and the somewhat archaic writing style when I did read the original. It’s not a total rewrite, but rather a rework with interpolations.

3. Charlie Bone/Children of the Red King series by Jenny Nimmo

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These were some of the first “big” books I read as an elementary schooler, back when I thought 400 pages was an absolutely colossal book. Charlie Bone is a kid who discovers an unusual ability to see into the past through photographs, and he’s packed off to school with a group of children, the Endowed, who each boast their own specific magical talents. It’s Harry Potter-esque without being a carbon copy, and I think it’s an underrated pick for kids who want “something like Harry Potter!”

4. Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

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Here’s the pitch: a buddy comedy about an angel and a demon during the Apocalypse. If that idea strikes you as overly blasphemous, I wouldn’t bother picking it up, but if you have more of a sense of humor about such things, you’ll probably enjoy it. It taps into ideas both Biblical and cultural about what the Apocalypse will be like and pokes gentle fun at them. I actually learned a thing or two from it!

5. The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling

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You’ve already read it, right? If not, now’s the perfect time! If you have, what’s stopping you from rereading them for the third or fourth or eleventy-second time? Nothing, that’s what. Aside from being a tale of magic, Harry Potter has the best Halloween-oriented plot points in the game.

Have you read any of these? What are your favorite Halloween reads? Let me know in the comments!

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Review: The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing

Harriet and David are a happy couple who want lots of children, and so they have them. The first four are perfectly ordinary. The fifth child is something else. It’s a simple premise for a horror novel–almost an obvious one–and accordingly, it needs less than 150 pages for the idea to express itself fully.

This is not a gory, blood-pumping horror novel; it’s a tale of suspense. We spend nearly the entire book waiting for the other shoe to drop. Time and time again, the fifth child, Ben, does something that sets off alarm bells in the brain, and so we wait for him to snap. And wait. And wait.

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Doris Lessing takes the story from merely psychological to philosophical, taking a figurative page from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Like Frankenstein’s monster, Ben cannot help being what he is, and he does make efforts to be human in some sense. He is doomed to be misunderstood. Unlike Frankenstein’s monster, though, it’s not that people refuse to understand him. Harriet does her absolute darnedest to love Ben like she does her other children. Chillingly, he is completely incapable of being understood.

I find The Fifth Child to be an excellent example of horror from a feminine perspective in that it comments so incisively on motherhood. What Harriet faces is an extreme version of what many mothers face. Can I love all my children the same? Is it normal to resent my child? If my child turns out “wrong,” is it my fault? Am I doing motherhood wrong? Is it bad not to breastfeed, is it uncaring not to follow all the little bits of health advice that we mothers pass around among us? So many of Harriet’s problems are just one step beyond what an ordinary mother experiences.

The thing is, her experiences are not the experiences of an ordinary mother, and whenever she tries to point this out, others gaslight her. They pretend that Ben is just remarkably strong for his age, or a bit slow, or a bit “different.” On the flip side, they treat Harriet as though this difference is her fault. It all comes to a head in her conversation with a doctor toward the end of the book:

I don’t blame myself, though I don’t expect you to believe it. But it’s a bad joke. I feel like I’ve been blamed for Ben ever since he was born. I feel like a criminal. I’ve always been made to feel like a criminal.

I think that Harriet’s predicament is relatable not only for mothers, but for any woman who’s been treated as “hysterical” or “crazy” over legitimate grievances. That realism is what gives the novel its edge.

At first, I was a bit disappointed that we never do really solve the mystery of Ben. However, how Ben came to be what he is, is not the point. The point is the effect he has on his family and the people around him.

I recommend this to anyone looking for an unsettling read that isn’t too outright scary, especially if you appreciate a tint of feminist insight.

Rating: 4/5 stars.

You can buy it here!

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On Another Note: A K-pop Playlist for Halloween

K-pop may seem bright and cheery, more suited for summer fun than Halloween. In actuality, the aesthetic-based, high concept nature of the genre makes it perfect for spooky songs and videos. Some are genuinely dark, while others attach supernatural visuals to an otherwise bubblegum kind of song. However you like your music, there’s a Halloween K-pop song for you. In this post I highlight ten songs, but the full playlist I’ve created is much longer, available on Spotify or YouTube.

1. Dreamcatcher — Chase Me

Dreamcatcher is a fierce girl group with a hard rock vibe and killer dance moves. To match, their music video concepts have thus far involved horror, with “Chase Me” channeling The Shining. They’ve dedicated themselves to a ghostly storyline with gusto, and it’s paid off, attracting to them a dedicated cult following (not literally… we hope). Driving guitars combined with poppy vocals give their music a J-rock sensibility that wouldn’t be out of place on an anime soundtrack. Although they’re more rock than metal, they’ll appeal to fans of the Japanese sensation Babymetal.

2. VIXX — Voodoo Doll

WARNING: Contains body horror.

VIXX is famous for going full-out with their aesthetic concepts, and Voodoo Doll is no exception, crossing the line from dark to frightening and gory. Forget NSYNC’s mannequin look, this video shows the members as literal victims of voodoo dolls, gushing blood and stuck through with needles as their eyes glaze over into Xs. A dark, pulsing electronic beat supports dramatic vocals and rapping, and the choreography uses a needle prop. Both the music video and the choreography were rated adult in Korea for violence.

Note: Actual voodoo religions do not use dolls in the stereotypically depicted way. Please keep in mind the difference between myth and fact when enjoying horror!

3. Red Velvet — Peek-A-Boo

Red Velvet divides their discography into two main categories: their Red side is cute and quirky pop, while their Velvet side is smooth and sensual R&B. In “Peek-A-Boo,” they strike a balance between the two. Sonically, there’s nothing particularly ominous about this song, which dips into tropical house and has a Red-style chipper chorus. However, the music video shows the members living in a murder mansion where they lure delivery boys to their deaths. Red Velvet’s cuter songs tend to have unsettling vibes to them (see “Russian Roulette,”) but this femme fatale style was a step in a new direction for them, one that they leaned into with their following single, “Bad Boy.”

4. TRCNG — Wolf Baby

Several boy bands have used a werewolf concept to showcase a tough and mysterious vibe. TRCNG takes a different angle. They play up the campiness of the song and manage to make a dark, creepy monster into something actually cute. With sampled howls, exaggerated dance moves, and ketchup instead of blood, they add a pinch of humor to the slightly eerie refrain and the glimmering contact lenses. This is just the right catchy-cute bop to get you in the Halloween spirit if you’re not into the scary stuff.

5. Grace — Trick or Treat

More into hip-hop than pop? Grace is a Korean-American rapper who brings a grungy, rhythmic vibe to this song. The harsh, staccato consonants of “trick or treat” become their own kind of drumbeat, and the sung pre-chorus gives this track a nice pop sensibility. Don’t let the low-budget music video put you off. For a song that makes you feel like no one can mess with you, “Trick or Treat” is perfect.

6. HISTORY — Psycho

The song is, of course, inspired by the movie of the same name. I’m a sucker for eighties-style pop, and this delivers in a deliciously spooky way. The opening lines actually remind me of the Ghostbusters theme, which makes it sound like it might be a bit campy, but it’s actually got just the right amount of velvety darkness as it progresses to the pre-chorus. If you’re looking for something scary but sensual, this is your song.

7. SunnyHill — Midnight Circus

SunnyHill combines distinctly Korean-style dance-pop with demented circus music for a perfect upbeat Halloween bop. Small touches like male member Janghyun’s layered vocals and Kota’s oddly menacing refrain of “replay, replay” add extra flair to an already creepy instrumental. I love the styling in this video, too, which is reminiscent of scene kids in the aughts with their stripes, tiny top hats, and ripped leggings.

8. BOYFRIEND — WITCH

This music video turns Red Riding Hood into a horror concept with Red as a witch and the members of the band as werewolves. They make creative use of red banners representing her cloak in their choreography, too. The visuals here really elevate a somewhat typical song about a bewitching bad girl into a story of its own that comes across as more Halloween than fairy tale.

9. 4Minute — Volume Up

4Minute is better known for their later hip-hop bangers like “Crazy” and “Hate,” but the poppier “Volume Up” isn’t any less fiery. This jubilant break-up song features some truly intense soaring vocals building into a danceable chorus. In the video, the members sport gorgeous vampire chic outfits and pose with a snake for added dangerous flair. It’s just subtle enough that you wonder if they’re really supposed to be vampires or not… until they vanish into clouds of black smoke at the end.

10. BIGBANG — Monster

What I love about this song is that its story is as apparent through its melancholy, pleading melody as through its lyrics. The members of BIGBANG channel the kind of angsty, secretly sensitive bad boy that populates supernatural romance novels, and they play their roles to a T. The emotional highs of the song are in English, and they express the song’s meaning in just a few words: “I love you. Baby, I’m not a monster” in the chorus, and the heart-wrenching outro, “I think I’m sick.”

Enjoy these? I’ve created a full playlist on YouTube and on Spotify. Note that they’re not quite identical — the YouTube version includes some songs that aren’t available on Spotify, while the Spotify version includes a few deep cuts that don’t have music videos.

https://open.spotify.com/embed/user/valerie-an/playlist/0yvJ7wQ2oLinQHhMl8ctIY

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