Whilst looking through my GoodReads shelves for books from 1951 one jumped out at me—Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson. I’ve read a collection of short stories and a few novels by her including her first novel The Road Through the Wall which was an impressive first novel. Hangsaman was her second novel published three years after her first. UK readers may be interested to know that Penguin re-released most of Jackson’s works a few years ago so most are readily available in different formats.
Hangsaman is the story of Natalie Waite which is principally from her viewpoint and covers a period of less than a year as she starts college. Natalie is a seventeen year old living at home with a rather pompous writer father, a neurotic, possibly alcoholic, mother and a younger brother. The novel opens with a breakfast scene where right from the start we experience Arnold Waite declaring ‘I am God’ to the annoyance of his wife and Natalie sits quietly, but critically, observing. She’s about to go to college; a college that her parents have taken time to choose for her and one that is really too expensive for them. Natalie is quite fearful of going there.
In the first section we get to experience how Natalie feels about the rest of her family. There’s an intense bond between Natalie and her father, though this is intellectual rather than emotional. Her father likes setting her writing tests and it appears as if he’s trying to live his life again through Natalie. The Waites are having a Sunday cocktail party which means that Mrs Waite has to spend most of the afternoon in the kitchen preparing the food. Natalie prefers being in her room reading or alone in the garden, whereas Mrs Waite finds the kitchen the only place where she can escape the overbearing presence of her husband. Arnold Waite prefers being in his study and Natalie has no idea what her brother, Bud, gets up to when she’s not around. They all prefer being apart from each other. Throughout this first section Natalie imagines that she is being quizzed over a murder by a policeman. The beauty of Jackson’s work is that she can make the everyday world seem eerie; there’s a sense of foreboding hanging over everything even though the sun is shining, it’s breakfast time, or it’s cocktail hour. Although Natalie seems to get on with her father better than her mother she admits to liking her mother when she is in the kitchen; where she can be herself and talk freely. At the cocktail party while Arnold is socialising and flirting with the women, Mrs Waite is drinking herself into a state in the bedroom. Only Natalie shows any concern and her mother confides to her:
“It isn’t any single thing,” Mrs. Waite repeated earnestly, the tears on her cheeks, “It’s just that—well, look, Natalie. This is the only life I’ve got—you understand? I mean, this is all. And look what’s happening to me. I spend most of my time just thinking about how nice things used to be and wondering if they’ll ever be nice again. If I should go on and on and die someday and nothing was ever nice again—wouldn’t that be a fine thing? I get to feeling like that and then I think I’ll make things be nice, and make him behave, and just make everything all happy and exciting again the way it used to be—but I’m too tired.”
Mrs. Waite continues her drunken monologue and portrays Mr. Waite as a malevolent force from whom she is trying to protect Natalie. The whole cocktail party is written so well that it’s a shame it ends, and it ends in a suitably creepy and disturbing way—I’ll say no more about that.
And so Natalie attends her college. She’s a loner from the start, preferring to stay in her room working rather than attending social events. She’s optimistic at the beginning that this will be a new start for her but the optimisim doesn’t last long. She becomes socially acquainted with her English professor and his wife who seem to be copies of her own parents with Arthur Langdon as a rather pompous, cocktail-loving, English professor and Elizabeth Langdon, an ex-student of Arthur’s, as his neurotic, alcoholic, suicidal wife. The Langdons are also visited by students Anne and Vicki; Arthur is probably having an affair with Anne. Anne and Vicki are friendly to Natalie but there’s no close bond between them as Natalie remains outside all the cliques. Meanwhile events start to happen in the dormitory that become increasingly sinister and weird. There is a middle of the night initiation which ends up farcical rather than menacing; objects start to be stolen; Natalie discovers that some of the keys open some of the other doors and in one of the more frightening episodes Natalie is woken in the middle of the night by someone and is told to follow them. She’s led by another girl through darkened corridors to another room where the girl coaxes Natalie to listen at the walls to hear them. When this finally gets too weird for Natalie she leaves the building but bumps into a girl called Tony, who either is already, or becomes, Natalie’s friend. We learn nothing of Tony, who at this stage of the novel, appears to be a figment of Natalie’s imagination. After an uncomfortable visit to her parents things get even more strange where Natalie and Tony have become best friends, walk hand-in-hand around town laughing at others and talking in a quick-paced, humorous banter. I was going to include a sample of this but I felt it was too long and probably wouldn’t make much sense out of context.
I won’t reveal much more even though there’s little definite to give away as the whole novel is ambiguous. This ambiguity could be annoying in a less accomplished author but Jackson is a master of this form of everyday creepiness. Jackson’s books are similar to David Lynch’s movies in many ways, though less violent. In the end we are unsure just how much is due to Natalie’s fragile and fractured psyche. The great thing about the novel is that Natalie is intelligent enough to reflect on her own feelings and thoughts. At times she doubts her own existence.
Perhaps—and this was her most persistent thought, the thought that stayed with her and came suddenly to trouble her at odd moments, and to comfort her—suppose, actually, she were not Natalie Waite, college girl, daughter to Arnold Waite, a creature of deep lovely destiny; suppose she were someone else?
This was one of those books where I ended up rushing through the ending a little, curious as to how it was going to end. I knew from the start that it wouldn’t have a clean ending but I was not prepared for what actually happened. It’s one of those books that has grown on me since finishing it and while writing this review. If you’ve already read some of Jackson’s more well-known work then I would suggest checking out Hangsaman or The Road Through the Wall. I’ve certainly got a hunger for more work by her.