The Safety of Home

“Nothing wrong,” says the husband near the end of Shirley Jackson’s story “Paranoia.” But like the couples in David Lynch’s Lost Highway or Michael Haneke’s Caché, who keep being delivered surveillance VHSs—tapes in which, first their homes and then they themselves are the subject—his sneaking suspicions have real consequences. He thinks he’s in the comfort of his own home at the end of a nightmarish evening, one where everyone seems to be out to get him, and his wife locks him in the living room (“Never knew that door had a key.”) and calls someone to say, “I’ve got him.” Is Mr. Halloran Beresford the target of some kind of murkily motivated hit?
An internet news story tells me that home invasions are unspectacular, happen in the most quotidian places, such as Lothian, Scotland, where a property developer is attacked by masked thugs with baseball bats in front of wife and kids. The thugs are apparently fronted by lawyers and bankers and other “respectable” people, but it’s difficult in the twenty-first century—despite the shrill, indignant tone of the news piece—not to say, “So what?”
The fear that arises from the Jackson story (as with the Lynch or Haneke narratives) is not a frontal attack by baseball bats or any other type of weapon, but simply the promise or, no, better, the hint of an attack. But in the Lynch and Haneke stories, the horror arises from an incursion into the couples’ private lives from unnamed outsiders. Also there is some suggestion of wrongdoing with both couples—in Caché Juliette Binoche may be fooling around behind her husband’s back with an ex, and adultery is a key plot point in Lost Highway—but Jackson’s story is a thing of the 1950s (though published just recently in the pages of The New Yorker, the story found by her children in her papers at the Library of Congress). Sex is not even intimated here.
What’s the big problem in Mr. Beresford’s life? The perfect word to describe his world is “balance.” He is a small man, innately cautious, afraid of scenes or appearing absurd, pants still pressed and face nearly clean shaven after an eight-hour day in the office. The story opens as he is exiting a candy shop, pleased for remembering his wife’s birthday, plans for dinner, maybe a show. He weighs the pros and cons of whether to get home via bus, taxi, or subway when he becomes aware that a strange man, an “ugly customer,” is following him.
There are no VHSs or crop circles or strange laughter coming from the attic in this story, just a man with a small moustache and light hat who seems to be following Mr. Beresford yet makes no contact. Home is clearly the only safe place to be and that is the central irony. The conclusion—a punchy shock like Jackson’s more famous “The Lottery”—indicates that there will be no dinner, no show. There is some dirty surprise awaiting him after the last words, contrasting with the clean exterior he presents the world in the opening scene. Jackson, like any narrative artist who understands the nature of dread, knows how to use the negative space outside the frame of the story.
John Duncan Talbird’s fiction and essays have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Juked, Ploughshares, REAL, Ambit, Amoskeag, and elsewhere. His book of stories with images by artist Leslie Kerby, A Modicum of Mankind, will be out this fall from Brooklyn publisher Norte Maar. He is on the editorial board of Green Hills Literary Lantern. An English professor at Queensborough Community College, he lives with his wife in Brooklyn.
“The Safety of Home” was originally published in The Glutton’s Kitchen (TLR Summer 2014)