During Shirley Jackson Week (13th to the 18th July 2015), hosted by Jenny, Ana and Simon, I’ll be on holiday. So I’m writing this post in advance; when you read it, I’ll be sunning myself on the Costa del Suffolk. Never having read any of Jackson’s work before, I followed Simon’s recommendation of We Have Always Lived In the Castle as a good place to start and ordered a copy. But it hasn’t arrived in time! Fortunately, I found a short story, ‘Paranoia’, in The Uncanny Reader: Stories from the Shadows (edited by Marjorie Sandor). I’m going to write about that now, and put it on timer to appear during SJW.
According to Sandor’s notes in The Uncanny Reader, ‘Paranoia’ was found in one of dozens of boxes of papers left by Jackson and now in the US Library of Congress, and was first published in 2013 in The New Yorker (where you can read it). In an interview also published in The New Yorker, Jackson’s son discusses how the story was found and why he believes it’s dated from around 1948.
In the story, Mr Halloran Beresford leaves the office with a box of chocolates for his wife, whose birthday it is. He is ‘pleased with himself’ for remembering his wife’s birthday, but there is nothing especially distinctive about him: ‘There were twenty small-size gray suits like Mr. Beresford’s on every New York block, fifty men still clean-shaven and pressed after a day in an air-cooled office, a hundred small men, perhaps, pleased with themselves for remembering their wives’ birthdays.’ Everything seems very ordered and regulated, both in Mr Beresford’s neat appearance and in office life more generally. Although Mr Beresford dislikes the subway ‘intensely, and found the public display and violent exercise necessary to catch a taxi usually more than he was equal to’, he is a little late going home owing to having had to buy the box of chocolates so he tries to hail a taxi. It is at this moment that he encounters a man ‘in a light hat’. Mr Beresford is repelled by him. ‘Ugly customer,’ is his reaction.
From this moment on, the menace builds. The man in the light hat pushes on a bus, preventing Mr Beresford from boarding it, but then reappears behind Mr Beresford and then starts walking beside him. He seems to be following Mr Beresford and even trying to direct his journey. Around Mr Beresford are crowds of people, but they offer no protection. Indeed, all of those who do interact with Mr Beresford – the shopkeeper, the bus driver, the old lady who spills her shopping – may actually be assisting the man in the light hat. But what does he want?
(George Grosz, Berlin Street (1931), oil on canvas; Metropolitan Museum of Art, found here)
The story’s title, ‘Paranoia’, implies that this is all in Mr Beresford’s mind, which is misinterpreting or distorting the world around him, creating the horror itself. But the persecution seems so real, because everything else is so ordinary, so calmly related and in such detail, the neatly pressed trousers, the bin marked ‘any item 25c’, the shifting of the box of chocolates from under one arm to the other. Around Mr Beresford normal life continues, people laugh at match-holders shaped like lavatories or buy tickets for the subway, until a moment before he was part of that, and now he has stepped into a sort of parallel existence with an inexplicable but clearly malevolent rationale, but just as real as the other. In fact, as we all know, just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you... (You knew I was going to write that somewhere in this review, didn’t you?)