Literary paranoia

When I was in high school, I found that interpreting symbols for English class would bring on a mild sort of paranoia. I would begin to look for symbols in everyday life. To cite one example: I had been sharing possum-related jokes (the kind that seemed funny at the moment) with a girl on whom I had a crush. Later, perhaps the same day or a couple of days later, I saw a dead possum on the street. Did this bode ill for the relationship?

I’m not sure if that would be considered an example of the pathetic fallacy, but in my mind, it’s not unreasonable to think of it as something akin to paranoia. Not in the sense of feeling as if people are plotting against me, but because of the anxiety at random things, a suspicion that they must mean something.

I don’t let myself fall into that any more. I recognize the absurdity of it. The sole exception is in the world of literature, where these sorts of idea, however unlikely, are not entirely absurd.

Beasts, a novella by Joyce Carol Oates, is about a somewhat shy young woman with literary aspirations attending a Bennington-like college in rural New England, where she gets to know a professor who it is hinted tends to have inappropriate relationships with students. These are all plot elements of Shirley Jackson’s second novel, Hangsaman. When a young woman named Drew Weldon shows up in Oates’ novella, the name immediately brought to mind Paula Jean Welden, the real-life inspiration for the protagonist of Jackson’s novel. Was this intentional or coincidence? Was Oates trying to throw out a flag for the reader who hadn’t already picked up on the similarities?

And the protagonist of Hangsaman? Jackson gives her the name Natalie Waite. The name didn’t mean much to me, until I was thinking of the opening to Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, which I’ve always thought features several Lovecraftian elements, recalling both “The Call of Cthulhu” and “The Dreams in the Witch House.” I’d always considered that a coincidence arising from both authors plumbing of dark themes. Except that last year I learned Jackson was a big fan of Lovecraft’s work. Is the similarity, then, in the names of Natalie Waite and Asenath Waite (a character first encountered at a New England college among literary types) a coincidence? If I was too quick to dismiss the Lovecraftian mood of Hill House, shouldn’t I at least consider the possibility of this connection?

One last example: The murder victim that sets the events of Season 1 of True Detective into motion is named Dorah Lange, a name very similar to Norah Lange. You may of course be asking: who the heck is Norah Lange? According to Borges: A Life, she was a woman on whom Jorge Luis Borges had a very serious infatuation for much of his life. Mere coincidence, right? Maybe, but then again, seeing as how Nic Pizzolatto has read his Ligotti, isn’t it likely that he’s come across Borges as well?

But, of course, just gathering up coincidences and looking for deeper connections suggests I may already be teetering over the rabbit hole.


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