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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