Shirley Jackson’s short story “Paranoia”

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Literary “resurrection-ists”

It’s a seemingly widespread phenomenon in the arts. Successful writers, musicians, etc., don’t let their own deaths stop “new” works of theirs from being released. Earlier this month, the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library’s book club read two just recently published works from that author, who died in 2007. This was not the first new, posthumous material of his we’ve read either. It happens often in popular music too. It seems every month we’re learning about the discovery of one “previously unreleased recording” or another. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, then, when author Shirley Jackson, who died in 1965, had a “new” short story in the most recent issue of The New Yorker magazine.

I have mixed feelings about all this. If I’m a fan of the artist, of course I’m curious about these “unknown” works, but am also tempted to be skeptical as to their quality. For what reason were they never published? Did the author himself feel they needed more polish? Did he decide to abandon the idea of publishing or selling a finished story because it just didn’t turn out the way he wanted? There has to be at least a small percentage of posthumously posted works that are ready, though, and only haven’t been published due to the fickleness of fate. I’d like to think that this “new” Shirley Jackson story would be part of that small percentage.

(below: Shirley Jackson – photo from shirleyjackson.org)

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“It had been an exceptionally good day, altogether, and Mr. Beresford walked along swiftly, humming to himself.”

The story, “Paranoia,” documents an ordinary man’s extraordinary commute home from work. Mr. Beresford is smugly pleased with himself, having remembered his wife’s birthday for instance, and also to pickup her favorite candy as a gift before heading home. Sadly, this lunch-pail variety “hubris” will not be tolerated by the unexplained evil forces at large in his world. His paranoia begins with the discovery that he is being followed by “a man with a light hat and a thin mustache.” Afterward, no matter what path he takes, or what mode of transportation (bus, cab, subway, walking) he chooses, he sees the same man or others who appear to be his operatives. (It reminded me of the old joke about the guy who says, “It’s not that I’m paranoid, it’s just that everyone is out to get me!”) Will he make it home safely, and what will he find when he gets there? These are the questions that propel the reader forward in the short story.

I haven’t read much Shirley Jackson, though her classic short story “The Lottery” is one of my favorites – and perhaps without that story, the world may never have known the literary and cinematic pleasures of The Hunger Games trilogy, which had to find some inspiration from “The Lottery.” Her book “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” had been on my TBR list for far too long. Perhaps it’s finally time to read that one… What do you think of Shirley Jackson? Which of her works have you read? How do you feel about literary resurrection-ists? Do you read The New Yorker? I’m a relatively recent e-subscriber (it was the unlimited access to their vast archive that got me, admittedly mostly for the short stories).

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There was an interesting interview with Jackson’s son regarding the discovery of this – and other – unknown works. It may be found here. A good summarizing quotation about this story from the piece was: 

“The story explores one of her common themes, the gradual realization of no escape, where the horror is that there is no help coming, no way out, no relief from any direction.”

(Below: that great literary/cinematic resurrection-ist from Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities,” Jerry Cruncher <on the left> played by Billy Bevan in the1935 movie adaptation)

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6 Comments

  1. Dale said,

    August 1, 2013 at 9:07 pm

    Hi Jay,
    I just read how Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast” was published posthumously. I didn’t realize that but apparently one of his relatives has helped publish a revamped version that paints one of Hemingway’s wives in a better light. Regardless of how Hemingway treated his wives, there seems to be something wrong about trying to rewrite his work. The relative should write his own book.

    The only Shirley Jackson story I’ve ever read was “The Lottery”. Stephen King mentions one of her short stories, “The Summer People”, in “11/22/63”. I’ve looked and looked for it, but can’t find it.

    -Dale

    Like

    • Jay said,

      August 5, 2013 at 7:25 am

      Hi Dale,
      I think I have The Lottery in one of my many anthologies. Maybe more than one actually. I think it’s frequently anthologized.

      I think the fact that “A Moveable Feast” was published posthumously showed up recently as a trivia question on Jeopardy (or maybe it was when I was playing trivia at BWs)

      It does seem that surviving relatives often take liberties with deceased authors’s works – liberties that the author would never have approved…

      -Jay

      Like

  2. lynnsbooks said,

    September 5, 2013 at 1:18 pm

    I’ve read We Have Always Lived in the Castle and heartily recommend. I hope you read it – I would be interested in your thoughts. I thought it was even better than The Haunting of Hill House. It’s quite fitting that this short story you read was called Paranoia because that seems to be something that Jackson seems to be able to capture so perfectly. I’ve read two of her books now and so will definitely look out for The Lottery.
    Thanks
    Lynn 😀

    Like

    • Jay said,

      September 6, 2013 at 12:08 pm

      Hi Lynn,
      Thanks for the comment. I pledge to read We Have Always Lived n the Castle soon. It has been so holy recommended by so many I can’t imagine why I haven’t red it yet.
      -Jay

      Like

  3. Rusty said,

    September 6, 2013 at 8:48 am

    I love all of Shirley Jackson’s work and was very happy when a “new” collection, One Ordinary Day, was released (maybe back in 1994?) by her family. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a terrific book. (AVOID the dreadful play version by the usually reliable Hugh Wheeler.) As for “The summer People,” it is a fun story, and can be found in the collection, usually titled “Come along With Me,” that was published by her husband Stanley Hyman after her death. Come along With Me was a novel Shirley was working on, and it was published unfinished – and it’s a hoot – makes you wonder how it would have ended. Someone even made a film version of it!

    Like

    • Jay said,

      September 6, 2013 at 12:18 pm

      Hi Rusty,

      Thanks for the visit AND all the info on Jackson! I was under the impression that Just an Ordinary Day was newly published, but I am likely mistaken. I bought an ecopy anyway. 🙂

      I’ll reiterate my pledge to Lynn above that I WILL read We Have Always Lived in the Castle soon.

      -Jay

      Like


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