‘The Hanging Stranger’ by Philip K. Dick

Dick, Philip K. 1953a

The Hanging Stranger by Philip K. Dick, 1953

The magic trick:

Keeping the reader confused about the mental health of the protagonist

Think of this like a sci-fi version of Henry James’s The Turn Of The Screw. Like James’s classic ghost story, “The Hanging Stranger” keeps the reader guessing as to the sanity of the narrator. And like James, “The Hanging Stranger” offers a further twist, a further turn of the screw, that folds the reader’s guesses and impressions in upon themselves. And that’s quite a trick on Dick’s part.

The selection:

Across the aisle a young woman, perhaps twenty. Dark eyes and hair, a package on her lap. Nylons and heels. Red coat and white Angora sweater. Gazing absently ahead of her.

A high school boy in jeans and black jacket.

A great triple-chinned woman with an immense shopping bag loaded with packages and parcels. Her thick face dim with weariness. Ordinary people. The kind that rode the bus every evening. Going home to their families. To dinner.

Going home—with their minds dead. Controlled, filmed over with the mask of an alien being that had appeared and taken possession of them, their town, their lives. Himself, too. Except that he happened to be deep in his cellar instead of in the store. Somehow, he had been overlooked. They had missed him. Their control wasn’t perfect, foolproof.

Maybe there were others.

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