‘Paranoia’ by Shirley Jackson

Paranoia by Shirley Jackson, 2013

The magic trick:

Using a premise in which the world appears extraordinarily normal, except in the eyes of one person

This one was published in 2013, but make no mistake, we’re going to 1940s New York City today. It was culled from Shirley Jackson’s unpublished work nearly 80 years after she wrote it.

Kind of nuts that she couldn’t find a publisher for it during her lifetime. Or perhaps she didn’t think it worthy? Either way, that’s surprising, because it is very good.

It’s a classic “everything is normal except for one thing” setup. It’s rush hour Manhattan. People are all over the place, going about their business, using public transportation, trying to get home. Nothing could be more mundane.

But our protagonist starts to notice strange things afoot. He appears to be the only one who is noticing though. It’s the basic template for a ton of Twilight Zone episodes. Maybe not the most original thing ever, but it’s a pretty entertaining premise.

And that’s quite a trick on Jackson’s part.

The selection:

He watched the people as he walked along, his perspective sharpened by being a man who has just succeeded in forgetting an annoyance; surely the girl in the very high-heeled shoes, coming toward him with a frown on her face, was not so able to put herself above petty trifles, or maybe she was frowning because of the shoes; the old lady and man looking at the shopwindows were quarrelling. The funny-looking guy in the light hat coming quickly through the crowd looked as though he hated someone . . . the funny-looking guy in the light hat; Mr. Beresford turned clean around in the walking line of people and watched the man in the light hat turn abruptly and start walking downtown, about ten feet in back of Mr. Beresford. What do you know about that, Mr. Beresford marvelled to himself, and began to walk a little quickly. Probably got off the bus for some reason, wrong bus maybe. Then why would he start walking uptown instead of catching another bus where he was? Mr. Beresford shrugged and passed two girls walking together and talking both at once.

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