Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” as an Indictment of Government/Industry Collusion

The Lottery by Shirley Jackson  Company Store

In her short story, “The Lottery,” Shirley Jackson symbolizes the power of “big business,” in collusion with the government, to control the private citizens. She published it in 1948, not a particularly strong year for anti-industry rhetoric. Earlier American authors were a better fit for that subgenre, with novels like The Octopus: A Story of California (1901) by Frank Norris and The Jungle (1906) by Sinclair Lewis. Conversely, only three years after World War II ended, most Americans were optimistic about industry growth. On the eve of the Golden Age of Capitalism (Marglin 39). Nevertheless, Jackson placed signs and symbols of corporate tyranny in The Lottery, as this essay will demonstrate. Post-war optimism aside, Jackson knew something was wrong. Her husband, literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, probably said it best when he called The Lottery, “a sensitive and faithful anatomy of ours times, fitting symbols for our distressing world of the concentration camp and the Bomb” (Hyman).

The lottery takes place in a small, rural village and is officiated by three men who are, arguably, the three most powerful men in town. The owner of the coal company, Mr. Summers, directs the proceedings of the lottery. Summers enters the town square carrying a black box full of folded strips of paper. Mr. Graves, the Postmaster, performs the swearing-in of Mr. Summers. Mr. Martin, who owns the grocery store, and his son Baxter, hold the box steady while Mr. Summers stirs the papers inside. The men in the crowd talk about “planting and rain, tractors and taxes,” which indicates that many of them are farmers. As farmers, they might rely on Mr. Martin, the grocer, to buy their produce. They might be in debt to the bank for the purchase of tractors or other farm equipment. They are certainly subservient to the government in that they must pay taxes, indirectly supporting the Postmaster, Mr. Graves. Only around 300 people live in the village, so most of the non-farmers must work for the coal business, owned by Mr. Summers.

In this village, the tradition of the lottery goes back so far into the past that the townspeople have forgotten some of the original parts of the ceremony, but they accept the validity of the lottery, mostly without question. They link the ceremony to crop fertility, as evidenced by Old Man Warner quoting an adage, “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.” It sounds like a pagan rite, and by the end of the story, we see just how pagan it is. We learn why people have collected rocks in preparation for the event. The townspeople kill the lottery winner by stoning. This time around, they kill Tessie Hutchinson. Thus, Tessie Hutchinson becomes a sacrifice, ostensibly for a bountiful harvest.

Why would anyone want to continue such a terrible tradition? Notice that all the slips of paper are blank except for one. The “winning” paper had a black spot on it, “the black spot Mr. Summers had made the night before with the heavy pencil in the coal company.” Graphite is the main ingredient in pencil lead. Graphite and coal are both forms of carbon. The black spot on the paper represents coal. Notice that Mr. Summers wielded a “heavy” pencil, representing the heavy hand of power. The lottery is a control system.

The most powerful men in the village are perpetuating a violent ritual among the obedient residents of the community, and that makes the lottery in Shirley Jackson’s tale a sinister variation on Girard’s scapegoat mechanism. Girard described the scapegoat mechanism as a small dose of violence that served to avert a more catastrophic violence. Conflicts occur within a community, according to Girard, because of rivalries. When conflicts grow, threatening the existence of the community, the scapegoat mechanism acts as a pressure valve. The members of the community set aside their differences to unite against one person, and that person becomes the “scapegoat.” The scapegoat mechanism, as described by Girard, is a subconscious human phenomenon. What makes the lottery in Jackson’s story so sinister is that the town leaders have consciously institutionalized it to keep the populace docile. Whatever circumstances might normally interfere with docility need not be specified, as conflict is a part of any society.

Governments and corporations often work together, sometimes legitimately and other times in illegal collusion. Singer/songwriter Merle Travis recorded and released a song in 1946 called “Sixteen Tons.” The song described the plight of coal miners who, in return for employment, were required to buy supplies from the company store, which was owned by the coal company and more expensive than other stores. It was often very difficult to get out of debt to the company store. Historian Lou Athey says, “The stores served numerous functions, such as a locus for the government post office…and community center…(Athey). The connection between the coal-company-owned store and Post Office may only be coincidental to the setting in The Lottery, but it illustrates the idea of privately-owned corporations working with government institutions. When coal miners went on strike in 1919, the Federal government invoked a wartime measure that made the strike a crime and sent soldiers and spies into the camps to enforce production (Marcus). The government and police created scapegoats by accusing strike sympathizers, especially foreigners, of socialism and communism, going so far as to arrest some of them (Marcus). Similarly, the late 1940s and early 1950s saw the rise of the “Red Scare” and McCarthyism, in the United States, in which anti-communist paranoia resulted in “systemic persecution of those who were believed to have subversive worldviews” (“The 1940s”). The company stores are closed now, but other collusions abound. As recently as February 7, 2018, President Trump nominated Marco Rajkovich, an attorney who has defended coal mining companies charged with safety violations, explosions, and other disasters, to oversee mine safety cases (Ganim). In March 2017, “A bill approved by Kentucky lawmakers Tuesday would cut back the number of state inspections of coal mines per year” (Jamieson).

In 1939, the population of the United States was 131,028,000 (Clodfelder). In the four years this country was involved in World War II, we lost 418,500 soldiers (Clodfelder), or roughly .32% of our total population. Shirley Jackson tells us there were just over 300 people in the village in The Lottery. When the villagers stone their annual victim, Tessie Hutchinson, they are killing around .32% of their own.    

by Bill Ectric

Works Cited

Athey, Lou. “The Company Store in Coal Town Culture,” Labor’s Heritage, vol. 2, no. 1, 1990 pp 6-23.

Clodfelder, Michael (2002). Warfare and Armed Conflicts – A Statistical Reference to Casualty and Other Figures, 1500–2000. McFarland & Co. p. 582.

Ganim, Sara and Gregory Wallace. “Trump nominee to oversee mine safety cases is lawyer who defended coal companies.” CNN Politics. 07 Feb. 2018 Accessed 14 Feb. 2018.

Hyman, Stanley Edgar. Preface. The Magic of Shirley Jackson, by Shirley Jackson and Stanley Edgar Hyman, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1966, p. viii.

Jackson, Shirley. “The Lottery.” The Lottery and Other Stories. 2nd ed., Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2005.

Jameison, Dave. “Coal Country Republicans Set to Cut Mine Safety Inspections.” Huffington Post, 14 March 2017. Accessed 14 February 2018.

Marcus, Irwin, Eileen Mountjoy, and Beth O’Leary. “The Coal Strike of 1919 in Indiana County and Its Aftermath.” Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Accessed 02 Feb. 2018

Marglin, Stephen, and Juliet Schor. The Golden Age of Capitalism: Reinterpreting the Postwar Experience. University of Oxford Press, 2011

“The 1940s: Lifestyles and Social Trends: Overview.” American Decades. 2001. Web. 30 Nov. 2012>.


Robert A. Heinlein and Philip K. Dick: Contrast and Compare

Robert A. Heinlein

Robert A. Heinlein

Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick


This essay by Gary Westfahl first appeared on Locus Online March 1, 2005.

Here are some excerpts:

Of course, one can readily epitomize the ways in which these authors are significantly different . . .  the characters that most interest them stand at opposite ends of the social spectrum . . . As Karl Marx would sum things up, Heinlein identifies with the aristocracy, Simak with the bourgeoisie, and Dick with the proletariat. More prosaically, the Heinlein Hero owns the office building; the Simak Hero runs a nice little shop on its ground level; and the Dick Hero sweeps his floors every night.


. . . it is not surprising that the polarizing changes in America during the 1960s moved Heinlein and Dick to opposite ends of the political spectrum. Heinlein, horrified by the counterculture and everything it represented, hardened into a bitter reactionary, eventually endorsing (in To Sail Beyond the Sunset) a longed-for President Patton’s policy of shooting drug dealers on sight. Dick embraced the counterculture, freely experimented with drugs, and announced a fervent admiration for young Americans and their liberal, liberating philosophies. For that reason, when commentators discuss the time when Heinlein happily purchased a new typewriter for a temporarily down-and-out Dick, this is presented as evidence of Heinlein’s amazingly generous spirit, his willingness to help individuals in need even if they were people he otherwise had reason to abhor.

I respectfully disagree. I think that Heinlein gave Dick a typewriter because he could recognize a soul brother when he saw one. And I would argue that, when one considers the qualities that made those writers great, the qualities that distinguish the wondrous novels and stories written in the first two decades of their careers, one must conclude that they are, in fundamental ways, exactly the same sort of writer.

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An Interview with Sohrab Fracis

Sohrab Homi Fracis

This interview first appeared on Literary Kicks, September 8, 2011

“Imagine you have a friend named Rob,” says our instructor at the University of North Florida Writer’s Conference. “If you want to ask your friend a question, you might begin by saying, ‘So, Rob…’ and that is how to pronounce my first name.”

Sohrab Homi Fracis (“Fray-sis”) is the first Asian writer to win the prestigious Iowa Short Fiction Award. He received it in 2001 for his collection of short stories, Ticket to Minto: Stories of India and America, published by University of Iowa Press. He resisted advice from publishers to combine the thematically related stories into a single novel, which they thought would be easier to sell. Fracis believed passionately that the stories stood strong and worked best as they were.

“And I was proven correct,” he says.

India Magazine calls the book, “Stunning in its breadth and scope of language and description … a fresh voice in South Asian fiction,” and adds, “One can grow tired of Rushdie wannabes, mother-in-law stereotypes, and village parodies. Fracis’s writing is brutally honest, exposing sinew and nerves and getting at the heart of the matter.”

Lenore Hart, author of Waterwoman, says Ticket To Minto “evokes the snaky path to adulthood, exposing all those hitchhiking demons at the intersections. From Caulfieldesque schooldays in Bombay, to assimilation amid the seductive consumerism and residual racism of American culture, a powerful, serio-comic look at two worlds, inside and out.”

Sohrab is currently writing a novel called Go Home, which he says he has been pitching to publishers as “Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake meets Kerouac’s On the Road”. An excerpt from the novel, published in Slice Magazine, was nominated for a 2010 Pushcart Prize. Another excerpt appeared in South Asian Review.

Sohrab Homi Fracis was born in Mumbai (then called Bombay), India. He first studied engineering, then computer programming, then became a systems analyst, which brought him to the United States. He went back to school for an M.A. in English and creative writing at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. He taught literature and creative writing at this college from 1993 to 2003, and is now retired from teaching except for his participation as an Instructor for the annual University of North Florida Writers Conference. A few months ago, I went to an open-mic prose and poetry reading at one of Jacksonville’s most popular independent bookstores, Chamblin’s Uptown. At that time, I knew nothing of Sohrab and his awards, but his reading of a selection from Ticket To Minto motivated me to buy the book. I enjoyed every story, and a couple of months later attended the UNF Writer’s Conference.
Sohrab’s Critique Workshop was, for me, the educational highlight of the experience. The man is serious about the craft of writing, somehow amiable and intense at the same time, and reads aloud with an agreeably expressive resonance. One student said, “He reads like Paul McCartney sings.”

I didn’t want to wait another year to ask him questions, so I arranged to interview Sohrab for Literary Kicks.

Bill: The ending of your book’s title story, “Ticket to Minto”, left me unsure as to how I felt about the aggressive actions of the Mintoan students. The uncertainty was a not altogether unpleasant, but rather felt akin to the enthusiasm I felt as a teenager for movie anti-heroes like motorcycle gangs and western gunfighters. Did you intend to elicit this feeling?

Sohrab: I didn’t mean to portray the Mintoans as anti-heroes (though I’m fine with your reading/experiencing/enjoying them that way), so much as almost ridiculously complex men: excessively polite and generous under certain circumstances, but crude and murderously violent under others. As a result, the story’s narrator is ambivalent about them, and in conveying the story through his perceptions, I do intentionally impart that ambivalence to the reader and a strong sense of their complexity. At roughly midpoint of the story, the reminiscing narrator says of the Mintoans, “Something in me has always said that if I could understand them, I could understand myself; if I could understand them, I could understand our country in all its callow bombast and hoary wisdom; if I could understand them, I could understand the world.” He’s getting at that wide-ranging complexity in the central clause, and extending  it to all of us. Underneath our socially constructed veneers, we’re genetically and biochemically complex creatures, capable of a wide range of characteristics in response to the relevant stimuli (short-term and long-term). I used to say to my lit students at University of North Florida: “Show me someone you think is ‘a simple man,’ and I’ll show you that still waters run deep. Show me someone who thinks of himself as a simple man, and I’ll show you someone who’s deluding himself.” That goes for women too, of course; I was just bouncing off the commonly used phrase.

Bill: What are some projects you worked on as a computer programmer?

Sohrab: Let’s see, I first programmed in Bombay, India, for an overseas Swiss project, before Bombay was renamed Mumbai and outsourcing was even a word. Next, I was contracted to HON, a Fortune 100 office-furniture manufacturer in Muscatine, Iowa, which would later become the setting for my story, “The Mark Twain Overlook.” The name of that scenic point overlooking the Mississippi stuck in my head long before I became a writer. Then I was contracted to Ford, in Detroit, coding for the Plymouth
Assembly Plant. That later gave me the settings for a couple of stories in Detroit. And finally, I developed systems here in Jacksonville, Florida, including an online system for the School Board. Soon thereafter, like the aspiring writer in “The Mark Twain Overlook,” I “left the writing of code to go write my own stories.”

Bill: Does India have any fiction genres not found in America, or conversely, are there genres in America that you rarely or never find in India?

Sohrab: Well, there are the ancient Indian epics, in particular the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, but others as well, from an oral storytelling tradition, originally, and transcribed first in Sanskrit, I think. That’s a fiction genre not to be found here (and one that can no longer be created), unless there are American Indian epics (not just the briefer, separate legends) that I’m not aware of. Even if there are, the difference would be that almost every Indian knew those culture-molding stories, so they were common
fiction ground easily referenced in any conversation or story, as in my story “Matters of Balance,” which plays off the Mahabharata. Also, there’s Indian fiction in various indigenous languages: Hindi, Bengali, Gujarati, Tamil, etc.

In Campion School we read some Hindi stories as well as English, though mostly the latter. I believe that early multilingual experience helped my writing ear. There again, most of America reads and writes in only one language, English. I think experimental fiction, where form takes priority over content, may be a genre as yet unexplored in Indian fiction. But it seems to be a dead or dying genre, now.

Bill: How do you see the role of literature in bridging gaps between different cultures?

Sohrab: It’s hard to tell the degree to which it does that, without a study through surveys, etc. Clearly, it has done so to some degree, and continues to do so, but I think the way it does that has been undergoing a change. Used to be that, wherever we were from, we’d come to know about, say, the Russian or French cultures through reading their respective stories, often in translation, about Russians interacting with other Russians in Russia or the French interacting with other French men and women in France. And they in turn would read stories about us interacting with our fellow Americans or Indians or Englishmen, as the case may be, and they’d learn about our cultures that way. So the literature wasn’t about characters bridging cultures, just about characters immersed in separate cultures. Whereas now, more and more, we have international or global or, as I like to call it, cross-national stories about, say, Jamaicans and Pakistanis interacting with Englishmen in England, as in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. And the multinational characters are themselves in the process of trying to bridge the cultural gaps between one another.

Take that a step further and we have such stories taking place in more than one national setting, even across the continents. I discussed this as visiting writer in residence at Augsburg College, Minneapolis, in a 2004 craft lecture on “Multiple Sense of Place in Contemporary Fiction,” as opposed to the traditional strong single sense of place exhibited by, say, William Faulkner. The more our lives play out globally in this age of globalization, the more our literature will reflect that global setting. So the subtitle of my
collection is “Stories of India and America,” reflecting an alternation between the two countries all the way. The novel I’ve been working on, Go Home, which gets its name from a phrase yelled at foreigners in the aftermath of the Iran hostage crisis, features an Indian character of Persian origin in America searching for his place in the world.

It would be interesting to track the roots of this expansive international literature: colonial literature, such as E. M. Forster’s work, expat writing, such as Hemingway’s, and postcolonial lit, such as V. S. Naipaul’s and Jamaica Kincaid’s, all come to mind. Of course, war stories, inherently cross-national, go back all the way to the ancient epics: Greek, Persian, Indian, Irish, British. But they weren’t exactly bridging cultures.

Bill: How did you receive the “Most Beautiful Books” award?

Sohrab: When my book’s German translation, Fahrschein bis Minto, was released at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2006, it was selected to a list of fifty “Most Beautiful Books” of the year. As far as I know, that was quite literally meant as an award for the artwork and design of the German edition at Mitteldeutscher Press, not anything to do with the book’s content. Funny story, though: the cover design etc. at first had been quite different, more humorous than artistic, to go with a new title they’d envisioned: Minto Hostel.
Apparently, that was meant to ride the wave of popularity of a movie called Hostel. But when I explained to my translator-editor Thomas Loschner at Mitteldeutscher that Ticket to Minto functioned as a metaphor for the reader’s passage to a destination straddling East and West, they went back to the original title and redesigned the cover.

Bill: What was it like reading at the Zoroastrian Association in Houston, Texas? What year was that?

Sohrab: It was a great event! The year was 2003. The ZAH had recently built and opened its lovely new cultural center, and the event was part of an inaugural series. I reunited with old friends, who put me up for the weekend. There was a nice buildup, with a reading at the River Oaks Bookstore the evening before and an interview on an Indian radio show, “Music Masala,” in the morning. As a result, the center’s reading room was packed. I read “Holy Cow,” a story about Parsi characters in Detroit, then fielded some
great questions and signed a bunch of copies. All of that, and I got to see a great new city too.

Bill: You write about tennis players — do you still play? Have you won any tennis championships?

Sohrab: I had to stop playing tennis years ago and turn to table tennis, because of chronic tendonitis in my playing arm. Though I played inter-collegiate tennis briefly in India, it came second to inter-varsity badminton, where I captained my college team. The only tennis tournament I remember winning was the inter-hall tournament at IIT. My sporting accomplishments were modest, all at a college or city level. But I came from a sporting family, as I describe in a piece about my late father, “Flicker Fracis is Alive,” for
FEZANA (Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America) Journal. As I wrote in there, “it enriched my life,” and “my stories would reflect [my father’s] love for sports, a love he passed on to me.” Though only peripheral to a few stories, sport was a rich field to mine for metaphors about the game of life.

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Jeremy C. Shipp – Light, Darkness, Imagination, and Ectoplasm

Jeremy Shipp  Attic Toys

Jeremy Shipp is a writer with staying power. I’ve only read one of his novels, the surreal Vacation, but I’ve been reading collections of his short stories, which I’ve downloaded onto my Kindle iPhone app, and looking forward to more.

I only recently became aware of this 2010 interview  with Mr. Shipp by Richard Romero for the Yuma Sun:

RR: Who are your main influences and why?

JS: I fell in love with storytelling thanks to individuals such as Terry Gilliam, HG Wells, George Lucas, Jules Verne, Jim Henson, Alexandre Dumas. These days, I find myself inspired by people like Haruki Murakami, Takashi Miike, Lois Lowry, Hayao Miyazaki, Arundhati Roy, Park Chan-wook.

RR: How did you get involved with writing in the horror genre?

JS: I’ve never thought, “I think I’ll write a horror story now.” This just happens naturally. That rather long short story I wrote in 4th grade was rather dark and strange. And even when I played pretend with my brothers as a kid, our recurring characters included the grim reaper, a mummy, and other monsters.

Read entire article

Read more:

Wadsworth Camp Cinema Connections

Left: Poster from the film The Signal Tower (1924, Universal Pictures), Top center: Cover of the May 1920 issue of Metropolitan Magazine, Bottom center: Child actor Frankie Darro, Right: Robbie the Robot and Anne Francis star in Forbidden Planet

Left: Poster from the film The Signal Tower (1924, Universal Pictures), Top center: Cover of the May 1920 issue of Metropolitan Magazine, Bottom center: Child actor Frankie Darro, Right: Robbie the Robot and Anne Francis star in Forbidden Planet

There are all kinds of connections in this overview of the Wadsworth Camp short story, The Signal Tower, and the movie that was based on it. As part of my research on Charles Wadsworth Camp, I’ve already written about a film called The Last Warning (1929) that was based on Camp’s novel The House of Fear (1916, Doubleday). Now we turn our attention to a Camp short story called The Signal Tower, which appeared in the May 1920 issue of Metropolitan Magazine. That particular issue is notable for also including a article called Spiritualism – Truth or Imposture? in which George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, Sir Oliver Lodge, G. K. Chesterton, and Sir William Barrett discuss the supernatural. Maybe Camp had Sir William Barrett in mind when, in his mystery novel The Abandoned Room, he wrote: “No one,” the doctor answered, “can say what psychic force is capable of doing. Some scientists have started to explore, but it is still uncharted country.”  Barrett (1844-1925) was a professor of physics at the Royal College of Science in Dublin who was also interested in philosophy, literature, spirituality, and communication with the dead. In researching Barrett, I ran across the name of Robert Jahn, who, from 1978 to 1987 studied precognitive remote viewing at the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Laboratory (PEAR). By coincidence, I am currently reading Camp’s novel, The Guarded Heights, in which the main character goes to Princeton University.

Besides appearing in Metropolitan Magazine, the short story was included in an anthology called The Best Short Stories of 1920 and the Yearbook of the American Short Story, edited by Edward J. O’Brien. O’Brien wrote the introduction to another anthology called The Grim 13: Short Stories By Thirteen Authors of Standing (Dodd, Mead & Company, 1917: Blackmask 2007), edited by Frederick Stuart Greene, which included another short story by Wadsworth Camp called The Draw-Keeper. One of the prerequisites of each story in this collection was that they had  to have been rejected repeatedly by American magazine editors due to their unhappy endings and/or uncompromising realism.,

The film adaptation screenplay was written by James O. Spearing. It starred Virginia Valli and Rockliffe Fellowes as Dave and Sally Tolliver, the great Wallace Beery in one of his trademark roles as a big brute who puts the moves on Sally Tolliver while her husband is occupied with trying to prevent a train wreck. The child, Sonny Tolliver, is played by Frankie Darro, who began his acting career at age 6 and later appeared in the science fiction serial, The Phantom Empire (1935), and later went on to be the man inside Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet (1956), although the robot’s voice was dubbed by actor Marvin Miller.

The UCLA Film and Television Archives has a print of The Signal Tower .

Another bit of Wadsworth Camp trivia, unrelated to the rest of this article, involves singer/musician Rudy Vallee. In a 1932 interview by Sidney Skolsky, Vallee said his favorite book was The Guarded Heights by Wadsworth Camp! Then again, this piece of information may not be totally unrelated to the subject of cinema connections. Sidney Skolsky is widely credited as the first person to use the term “Oscar” for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences Award.

Metropolitan Magazine May 1920

The Latch, A Ghost Story by Mikey Georgeson

I’m happy to have Mikey Georgeson back at Bill Ectric’s Place. Last time he was here we spoke mainly about music. This time I would like to present a short story that demonstrates Mikey’s ability to plunge into commonplace waters and surface with an uncanny pearl.

The Latch – A Ghost Story

bu Mikey Georgeson

So there I was swaying in the breeze contemplating the growing pile of fag butts in the plant pot and how I really ought to dispose of them for the sake of my karma when I realised that the click I had heard was the front door closing itself. I had no key.

“I have no key,” I thought. I am ill and standing in the garden locked out feeling nauseous from the guilt of not being able to give up smoking. I knew for a fact that I had left the door on the latch. But this was no Victorian manor house I found myself suddenly exiled from – this was a late sixties purpose built ex local authority brutal semi. I still had my slippers on and my phone was inside. I remembered that I had seen the magnificent Tania sauntering home after the school run and wondered about walking around the block to her house in order to phone my wife. Oh the times I had fantasised about such an occurrence but in these reveries I did not have slippers on my feet and an eye of what I speculatively presumed to be suppurating head-lice bites. I was not looking my best. Still Tania worked with the homeless she would understand. And so I shuffled out of the gate making doubly sure that I left it on the latch. Not that this was any guarantee of my being able to rely on the sanctuary of my garden in the face of the devilish activity in my home that had just then come to light.

One often saw people in their slippers on the forgotten estate. The only problem is I had never counted myself amongst their number. And so I resolved to walk boldly as if slipper wearing on a rain sodden day was the most natural thing in the world. I knew that there was a moderate to high chance of happening upon another parent returning from the school run so I fixed my gaze ahead and set a gentle smile about my lips. As the gate closed behind me I’m sure I heard my mobile phone ringing. The cat stared down at me from the top of the outhouse as if to say “well aren’t you going to answer that?” now that I came to think of it the cats had been running madly around the house just prior to my morning cigarette. I sometimes thought of myself as a sailor on a round the world yacht as I stood on the deck smoking. Staring at the sky wondering what the day had in store. And like another dreamer my yacht was permanently anchored on an island half the world away from where I regularly reported myself to be.

I made it through the residents’ car park without bumping into anyone and now stood at the side of the road where the estate ends and the proper Victorian streets begin. These are the really covetable streets I thought. These are the houses that bring parents to the area. I stood at the top of Tania’s street. I had actually forgotten the name of the street. We used to see a lot of each other prior to our children attending school. Once she had been round our house and set the kitchen on fire by placing the kettle on the hob and leaving it while we played out the front with the children. I remember her clutching her youngest daughter in a blanket whilst I tried to fling dampened towels onto the blaze. It had all struck me as being like a scene from a melodramatic engraving. We got a new cooker and redecoration out of this misfortunate episode but somehow our friendship was nerver put back the way it had been before. It had somehow illuminated the class divide between us. She in her Victorian Aga styled town house and us in our functional cube.

I stopped at the window with the wooden blinds. That was always how I recognised Tania’s house. I couldn’t tell you now what the number is. I could see the flicker of movement through the slats and went up to the door. I decided to knock on the window. Hello” said an unfamiliar voice. “Oh its Mikey” I replied nervously. I was always replying nervously.

“It’s who?” said the voice.

“It’s Mikey I’m a friend of Tania’s from church.’ Quite why I had said this I don’t know. It seemed to conjure up an idea of a friendship on a secure footing but equally if someone had said it to me I would have found it deeply suspicious. But I wasn’t like other people and so frequently found myself trying to second guess what the best thing to say would be and invariably when it came time to speak picked the oddest statement from the hastily complied multiple choice.

The door opened and revealed a small pretty young woman.

“Hello” I said again “is Tania Home?”

“Oh she’s just about to leave I think, what do you want?”

“Erm oh it’s nothing important it can wait.”

Tania’s impressive frame emerged into the light from the kitchen at the back of the hallway.

“Hi Mikey are you okay? How are you all?”

“Oh Hi we’re fine I just thought I’d pop round on my way to the shops to see if you had thought any more about the… the… ”

“Really sorry I’ve got to head off. We really must get a date in the diary for a dinner round ours. I still owe you one.”

“Okay that would be lovely,” I said shuffling trying not to show my slippered feet, which was clearly impossible.

Tania strode past me and touched my arm. The power touch. I stood there momentarily between her and the woman I calculated to be the cleaner.

“Thanks” I said to the young woman and raised my hand to say goodbye.

Back in the garden the space under the trampoline was at least dry. From time to time the cats would come out and sniff my hand. I curled up and tried to keep warm. My new coat would be a mess was all I kept thinking to myself. I could remember when this decking was pristine and now here I lay in the middle of gently rotting leaves and algae. This is the hardest part of having time to think. You can, if you are not careful, become rapidly aware of the tendency of everything to decay. If I wash my hands today they will be dirty tomorrow kind of thing. The boys scooters were next to me both missing various screws that had fallen off and rusting around the wheel arches – the football was peeling and under inflated. The log I had positioned to stop the trampoline moving was askew and now just another piece of mouldering detritus.

I somehow slept and woke to a faint click. At least I had remembered to put my hearing aids in. I looked out from my new cave like abode and caught sight of movement behind the garden door. We had chosen to have half glazed doors on the front door that opened onto the garden. “It’s nice to have a view,” I had suggested utopianly. Was the click the cat flap? I asked myself. The cat flaps that portal between the animal world and human consciousness. The cat flap – a conversation between man and beast. I crawled out trying not to catch my new coat on the decking as I did so. I gazed in shock as the front door gently opened a half-inch. My wife was right to constantly complain about what a bad job they had done of installing the new doors. We had had them back countless times to readjust them. Initially this had been to simply stop the rain from literally flooding underneath them but after several bodged attempts they needed frequent further adjustment. Finally I suggested they turn the drip bar the other way around and this did the trick. Now the doors were all ours and negotiations with the company Doors by Dores had unofficially ceased.

I pushed the door open and sniffed. Everyone smells a house on entering. It’s the fastest way of assessing if all is well. That time T had burnt down the kitchen I had smelt burning plastic but felt safe in the knowledge that there was nothing plastic in our home that could catch light. I hadn’t accounted for someone mistakenly putting a plastic based kettle on a hob though had I? The house smelt familiar with a very faint under note of dampness. This was not a nuance I had ever detected before. Our house was well built with no mysterious areas that could evade practical maintenance. This is what had attracted us to it but now we found ourselves longing for a home with uncharted corners. I winced as I remembered how on viewing the house I had met the son of the deceased owner. We had a pleasant conversation and I had held my own as an adult house buyer. He had been keen to show me the outhouse and indeed it was a surprisingly practical space in a small block outside the street side front door. “We put everything in there” he chuckled. And I, with my brain racing ahead to visions of myself installed in there on a woodwork project had chuckled back “yeah Dad!” Now this is not the most delicate of jokes I could have chosen to make to the son of a dead man endeavouring to sell his fathers house to a flimsy excuse of a grown up. Still he did laugh and I found myself wondering if this had been a conspiratorial reflex.

The cat was pawing the cupboard doors making a swish swish noise as she did so. Nothing unusual in that I thought. She’s always wanting to get in the cupboard under the stairs. The cupboard under the stairs was not your usual kind of low level design, being more of a walk in coat cupboard at the front then curving around under the stairs where we kept the boxes of more delicate objects that had seemed better suited to our Victorian childfree high ceiling flat in a conservation area. I opened the door to let the cat in. It sometimes worried me that the cat would get crushed under a box that I had not packed away scientifically enough but still I pushed such thoughts away as I watched her tail disappear behind the bag for life of summer footwear at the back. This space was then without doubt the last mystery of the house for although I had many time unpacked and repacked it in search of some suddenly indispensable item, it always reverted to a state of unfathomable depth once the door was closed. Not knowing what was in there was a constant potential source of irritation I was reminded of this as I placed my new coat on the peg. The cat mewed somewhere from within the mound of boxes and heaped up layers of living. “Okay puss” I called instinctively feeling an urge to crawl in and make sure she was okay. My phone was still on the side in the dining room and so I pushed on in the darkness. It sounds silly but the space was cramped and yet big enough to feel like I was scrabbling into the heart of the house. I caught a glimpse of Lilly’s eyes in the far corner where I packed the Christmas tree away. It would soon be time to dig it out again so why not now.” I mean I’ve come this far so why not?” I asked myself inwardly dreading the process of packing and unpacking the various bags and boxes.

Suddenly the cat yowled and I saw a flash of red. There were no lights under here so what did I see. I thought of the antique lamp stand with the ancient wiring. This had always struck me as a hazard and now it sat in a box where it had been packed on the day of our move. A faint rustling caught my ear and from the corner of my eye deeper shadows danced in the farthest corner right under the stairs. I ploughed on past the box of cheap toys and long since abandoned games consoles. This was the one part of the under stairs cupboard I had never been into and if I was honest I had always been too frightened of even reaching a hand into that space. The cat brushed past my face and in seconds I heard the swish swish of her pawing at the doors. She wanted to get back in. Swish swish. Swish swish like someone cleaning at a step with an incriminating stain.

Outside the leaves stirred in the breeze as I found myself entering the darkest part of the house. On and on I went down and down into the darkness of the mystery. The dampness was stronger here. The earth under my hands told me why. A frog, a newt, a slow worm all gently moved aside as I crawled. A small Mercedes matchbox car sat beneath my hand and I lifted it to my face to smell. Soon there was grass under my knees and the sound of small chattering voices. You may think I was going mad but I lived this. I scrabbled beyond the realm of either or and felt dimensions expand and contract around me. Fear had passed and tears streamed down my cheeks as I lay on the green grass of the traffic island outside my first love’s house. Nicky’s dad choked on his own vomit. We moved away from house to house each time the dimensions a little more generous and the address just that bit more respectable. Here I lay again now with Nicky beside me on the grass. Our toy cars spread out around us. This was the heaven I had longed for but now found myself wondering if there was any way back to the place from which I had crawled. I panicked and tried to scramble to my feet catching Nicky on the side of the face as I did so. Confusion flashed across her features as I ran. I ran and without looking found myself in front of an oncoming beautiful Mercedes coupe. The pain was all enveloping but strangely gentle. I’m all right I thought as I glanced across at Nicky on the grass. She was now smiling again.

Cursing as I did so I shoved the various boxes and bags haphazardly out of my way until I could here the swish swish of the cats paws on the door. Pushing them open from within I emerged back into the house. I picked the cat up and held her on her back like a child. She looked around the room and purred. I set her down and she sprang off through the cat flap into the front garden. It as about time I got on with some work and I padded into the kitchen and picked up the kettle.

This story first appeared on Mikey’s blog, Do You Get It? and was used by permission.

My Interview with Sohrab Fracis at LitKicks


“Imagine you have a friend name Rob,” says our instructor at the University of North Florida Writer’s Conference. “If you want to ask your friend a question, you might begin by saying, ‘So, Rob…’ and that is how to pronounce my first name.”

Sohrab Homi Fracis (“Fray-sis”) is the first Asian writer to win the prestigious Iowa Short Fiction Award. He received it in 2001 for his collection of short stories, Ticket to Minto: Stories of India and America. He resisted advice from publishers to combine the thematically related stories into a single novel, which they thought would be easier to sell. Fracis believed passionately that the stories stood strong and worked best as they were.

“And I was proven correct,” he says.

India Magazine calls the book, “Stunning in its breadth and scope of language and description … a fresh voice in South Asian fiction,” and adds, “One can grow tired of Rushdie wannabes, mother-in-law stereotypes, and village parodies. Fracis’s writing is brutally honest, exposing sinew and nerves and getting at the heart of the matter.”

Read the interview at Literary Kicks