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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“A Perfect Opportunity to Say Nothing”

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“Foster” – a short story by Claire Keegan

I just read the charming short story, “Foster,” as part of my 2013 short story reading project. I drew the four of diamonds, and diamonds is the suit for new or “unknown” (at least to me) authors. I found this story in my anthology “The Best American Short Stories of 2011” edited by Geraldine Brooks. The inclusion of this story is somewhat confusing since Keegan is an Irish writer. It was further confusing since it was published in the February 15, 2010 edition of The New Yorker; maybe being in The New Yorker qualifies it, but what happened to 2011? Weird, but not the point.

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***Spoilers Follow***

The story “Foster” (later expanded into a short novel) is told from the perspective of a young girl from a poor family. For primarily economic reasons she is sent away for the summer to live with a childless aunt and uncle on their farm. At first, she is very nervous about her new surroundings but grows to love her time there and her temporary “foster” parents.

She learns bits of wisdom from the couple. Early on, the wife tells her’ “…there are no secrets in this house. Where there’s a secret there’s shame, and shame is something we can do without.” She also learns to speak properly, and that the couple had a son of their own who had died after falling into a well.

The husband is a man of few words who, when told by another woman who watches the girl for them that “She’s a quiet young one, this” curtly replies “She says what she has to say, and no more. May there be many like her.” One time when talking with the child, he senses that she doesn’t know how to answer him and says, “You don’t ever have to say anything. Always remember that. Many’s the man lost much just because he lost an opportunity to say nothing.”

Though young, this advice must’ve sunk in, for later in the story and near the end of the summer tragedy nearly strikes as she herself falls into the well. Though quickly rescued and no real harm done, her “foster” parents are understandably concerned (how could they let this happen? Again!). She catches a slight cold and is still coughing and sneezing a little when she must be returned to her actual parents – something she is not looking forward to.

The remnants of the girl’s cold are of course noticed by her parents, who are not wholly satisfied the foster parents’ explanation that “nothing happened,” and that she “just caught herself a wee chill.” After they leave, her true parents question her further:

“What happened at all?” Ma says, now that the car is gone.
“Nothing,” I say.
“Tell me.”
“Nothing happened.” This is my mother I am speaking to, but I have learned enough,grown enough, to know what happened is not something I need ever mention. It is my perfect opportunity to say nothing.”

I liked this story a lot. At 27 pages it was longer than most of the stories I’ve read for this year’s project, but once I started reading, I hardly noticed. Are you familiar with Claire Keegan? What have you read by this author? Any subscribers to The New Yorker out there? I’ve thought about subscribing in the past since I know they publish short fiction regularly, but have never followed through.

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