The Horror Show: “Paranoia” by Shirley Jackson

In Shirley Jackson’s story, a man’s commute becomes a nightmarish series of encounters with a shadowy figure

Sometimes, writers of dark fiction blur the lines between horror and the psychological thriller. Though the monster is a staple of much horror fiction, it can take many forms; in some of its scariest and most disturbing incarnations, the monster is plainly, unquestionably human. An unfamiliar man in a light hat, for instance.

This is the form the shadowy antagonist takes in one of Shirley Jackson’s most nerve-shattering works of short fiction. “Paranoia” tells the story of Mr. Beresford, an average working man – an office drone in Manhattan – who leaves work at the end of the day and stops to buy his wife a box of chocolates for her birthday. He then debates with himself as to the best method of getting home expeditiously: hail a cab or take a bus. Jackson has great fun playing up the cliché of how difficult getting a taxi is in New York City; the man decides to take the bus. As he is attempting to board, he is roughly pushed by a stranger in a light hat, who gets on the bus just before the doors close on Mr. Beresford.

The man in the light hat will continue to harass Mr. Beresford, in progressively more menacing ways, as the man tries to get home to his wife. The uncanny interloper follows Mr. Beresford into a souvenir shop, tries to force him into a cab, and trails him onto a downtown subway and another city bus, sometimes appearing in places and time frames that seem impossible. On some occasions, he appears to have help in waylaying Mr. Beresford: the souvenir shop proprietor seems to be attempting to corner the harried office worker so that he is unable to leave the shop; the bus driver refuses to stop and let Mr. Beresford off, and when he tries to exit, an elderly passenger accidentally trips him in the aisle with her shopping bag.

Why do these people seem intent on apprehending Mr. Beresford? The central question of Jackson’s story goes unanswered; like Kafka’s Josef K, Mr. Beresford is the target of an apparent conspiracy to kidnap him for reasons unknown.

Then again, perhaps Mr. Beresford is delusional. When he tries to consider his situation rationally, he is brought up short; he approaches a policeman but hesitates when he recognizes how little real information he has to impart: “What did he have to report? A bus driver who would not stop when directed to, a clerk in a souvenir shop who cornered customers, a mysterious man in a light hat – and why?” Much of the fear and unease in Jackson’s story comes precisely from the lack of explanation as to why any of this is happening. The extent to which Mr. Beresford may be mentally unstable is left open, which is a typical tactic for the author. As Ottessa Moshfegh writes in her introduction to the Penguin Classics compendium Dark Tales, “Jackson asks: Dear reader, have you, too, lost your mind? Can you ever be sure you had one to lose in the first place?”

Throughout the story, Jackson preys on her reader’s expectations: she subverts the stereotype of the villain in the black hat and has otherwise benign figures – like the old lady on the bus – manifest in creepy, malevolent ways without, it must be said, doing anything explicitly threatening. The simmering tension in a large and crowded metropolis provides Jackson with great opportunity to heighten the tension behind the motives of numerous strangers a typical worker might be expected to encounter on any typical commute. The events that befall Mr. Beresford are all the more frightening because of the piercing ordinariness that forms their backdrop.

Mr. Beresford‘s putative paranoia is given one final turn of the screw, after he manages to elude the man in the light hat and make it home. Jackson, however, offers no comfort: home, the story suggests, may not be a refuge after all. The story’s final moments offer a truly terrifying Hobson’s choice: either Mr. Beresford is completely insane and his entire experience is a concoction of his fevered imagination, or he is not, and his Kafkaesque journey has been altogether real. As with many of the story’s unanswered questions, it remains unclear which eventuality is worse.

Whether we read the story’s title ironically or not, the closing scene is almost unbearably creepy. Jackson saves her most vicious cut for the final line of dialogue, which comprises three direct, monosyllabic words. Like many other writers of dark fiction, Jackson finds the wellspring of some of our greatest, deepest fears in our everyday surroundings: what if those people and places we took for granted as safe havens turned out in fact to be the opposite? It’s not paranoia, the saying goes, if they really are out to get you.

The Horror Show: “Paranoia” by Shirley Jackson
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