The Tooth by Shirley Jackson

16th Feb 2011


Shirley Jackson sets the bar a little higher. Legend has it that she concocted short story The Lottery, featured in this collection, whilst out shopping, toddler in tow no less.

Written in just two hours, The Lottery went on to become an iconic short story and her most infamous work.

The Tooth features five short stories to give you a taste for Jackson’s wider collection The Lottery and Other Stories, first published in 1949.

The Lottery is by far the most memorable story featured in The Tooth and deserves the attention that it received both at the time and more recent critical acclaim, featuring in many anthologies as a classic example of suspense.

Setting the story in a village much like her own home town of Bennington, New England, The Lottery shocked and offended both her local community and wider American society when first published in The New Yorker in 1948.

Subscriptions were cancelled, impassioned letters posted in protest. Whilst today’s readers may not be quite so shocked by the ending, which may well be predicted, it remains a chilling vision and the tension throughout is so well crafted that it left me feeling wobbly as a child’s front tooth.

The Tooth conjures up versions of everyday life that are disquietingly familiar and subtly unnerving, with Jackson creating the atmosphere of mystery amongst apparent normalcy.

Violence hovers sinisterly over all of the stories, whether veiled within small town rituals or recounted with disturbing delight by the strangest of strangers and rather curious children that Jackson introduces us to.

Tension is heightened as the unfolding events are viewed through unreliable sources, from an unnervingly precocious child in Charles to a drug-hazed, sleep deprived housewife in title story The Tooth.

Rumoured to be a self-confessed practitioner of witchcraft, Jackson challenged 1950s middle America’s views on how a female writer could and should act, look and write.

Her personal life shrouded in intrigue, her writing caused controversy in equal measures as she demonstrated that horror and the ability to shock was not merely male territory.

Witch or no witch, through her hypnotic prose Jackson certainly held the power to summon up characters and imagery unsettling enough to haunt far beyond their initial invocation.

The titles of the five stories combined would make for another intriguing short story waiting to be written: Charles, The Witch, The Tooth, The Lottery and The Intoxicated.

Will anyone take up this writing challenge and share the outcome with For Books’ Sake, I wonder? Something to think about next time you pop out to Sainsburys, perhaps?

The Tooth is part of Penguin’s recently published Mini Modern Classics series, out this week, celebrating the very best in short fiction from the last hundred years.

At only £3 each, these bite-sized tasters of classic fiction are perfect for your pocket and an accessible way to discover authors who may well turn out to be new favourites.

Rating: 4/5

Recommended for: Those looking for something to read after dark or on rainy trains. For fans of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, Stephen King, Roald Dahl and The League of Gentlemen.

Other recommended reading: If you enjoyed this, then why not explore other short fiction within the Mini Modern Classics, such as Katherine Mansfield’s Bliss and Angela Carter’s Bluebeard?

Nikki Shaill


  • Beulah says:

    Gorgeous! Have been on a Jackson odyssey since last summer so thank you Penguin for the perfect timing!