The story concerns an annual tradition in a small town in Vermont. Villagers gather each year on June 27 to participate in a ritual they believe will ensure a good harvest. Youngsters gather stones as the head of each family draws a slip of paper from a black box. One man draws the slip with a black spot on it. His family has been chosen. In the next round of the lottery, his family members draw slips. The man's wife gets the one with the spot. In the last scene, villagers surround her and stone her to death.
Readers of The New Yorker were outraged. Many sent hate mail to Jackson and some even canceled their subscriptions to the magazine. About a month after the story was published, Jackson sought to respond to the criticism in the San Francisco Chronicle. She said it was difficult to say what she hoped the story would say. "I suppose, I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village to shock the story's readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives."
Jackson later wrote that of the more than 300 letters she received, only 13 of them, mostly from friends, spoke kindly to her. Some, she said, she was scared to open. Her mother even chastised her, suggesting that such a gloomy kind of story seemed to be all "you young people think about these days."
The Lottery was adapted for radio, television, theater, and film. Jackson wrote close to 100 short stories, five other novels and several children's books. She is said to have inspired Stephen King, English author Neil Gaiman, British screenwriter Nigel Kneale, and screenwriter Richard Matheson, whose credits include What Dreams May Come, I Am Legend, and a short story, Duel, with he adapted into a screenplay for a TV movie that was directed by Stephen Spielberg.