Review: Shirley Jackson’s Hangsaman

Contains spoilers

“Reading Hangsaman is like entering a dark labyrinth, only to discover that you have always been it, and that the novel has merely awakened you to this fact, something you have tried all your life to forget.”…

“Natalie is lonely at school. And because of who she is, and because of what kind of novel this is, her loneliness is terrifying. The dangerous power of awareness, quotidian social brutality, loneliness, and existential fear propel Hangsaman toward the edge of becoming a psychological thriller” – Francine Prose

This book, more than any of Shirley’s other books, I had no preconceived notions of. I don’t know anyone who’s read it, I’ve never read anyone’s thoughts on it, I barely even knew it existed until I was going from bookstore to bookstore in Sydney looking for a shop that actually stocked her work. So it was already shrouded in mystery.

I spent a long time trying to figure out what this was actually about, as I was reading it. Natalie Waite, a seventeen year old girl, is starting college for the first time. She has two parents – a teary housewife for a mother and a pretentious writer for a father – and an apathetic brother, all of whom she doesn’t seem to really connect with at all. With nothing to tether her to a concept of “home”, she’s optimistic about starting a new life at the college, but finds it difficult to make friends and instead finds herself at artificial, tension-laden gatherings with one of her tutors, his young wife Elizabeth, and two of Elizabeth’s friends, one of whom the tutor might be having an affair with.

It seems pretty straightforward at this point, a coming-of-age story, but… that’s not what it is. At the beginning of the novel, it’s implied that Natalie was raped or assaulted by a man at one of her father’s garden parties, and that implication is pushed further and further back in Natalie’s mind, dissociating herself from reality. I get the feeling she desperately wants to be loved and accepted, and when she can’t make that happen she becomes increasingly unhinged and depressed, perhaps even inventing herself a friend in the mysterious girl named Tony who appears in the second part of the novel. The novel is incredibly (and purposefully) restrained, as though it’s balancing on the edge of a knife along with Natalie’s sanity.

My favourite section of the novel is actually the last few pages, set in an abandoned theme park, where the descriptions are so unsettling they feel like something out of one of those inexplicably creative nightmares you don’t really want to wake from. It’s atmospheric and vivd and… I think it’s the first time I’ve really had that “immersive Shirley Jackson experience” where I feel genuinely all at once afraid and expectant. I did feel lost in a labyrinth for a while there.

My favourite line is the last line: “As she had never been before, she was now alone, and grown up, and powerful, and not at all afraid.”


Review: Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle

“Poor strangers,” I said. “They have so much to be afraid of.”

I feel like I’ll always struggle with writing reviews for Shirley Jackson novels; there’s just so much to take in and so much interpretation to be done, so forgive me if I’m not as coherent as someone who’s known the book for a while.

In fact, this New York Times review from when it was released in 1962 is really accurate right now: “I have always felt that some writers should be read and never reviewed. Their talent is haunting and oblique; their mastery of the craft seems complete… And now, Miss Jackson has made it even more difficult for a reviewer to seem pertinent; all he can do is bestow praise.”

This was kind of the perfect book to read on the cusp of October, over two nights with my window open, smelling the night-blooming Jasmine outside. I’ve always found Spring to be an optimistic, magical kind of time, and this season is infused throughout We Have Always Lived in the Castle, climbing up the corners like vines over the ruins of a house.

“There was no change coming, I thought here, only spring; I was wrong to be so frightened. The days would get warmer, and Uncle Julian would sit in the sun, and Constance would laugh when she worked in the garden, and it would always be the same.”

I first read The Haunting of Hill House earlier this year, and it quickly became one of my favourite novels. In fact I was so impressed, and so taken with the protagonist who I saw a lot of myself in, that I decided to read more of Jackson’s novels (and I am writing a lengthy essay on her works for a course). There are a lot of similarities between it and this novel – isolated female protagonists, the concept of a “haunted house”, and the “suburban gothic” genre to name a few things – but in comparison to Hill House, this novel was strangely uplifting. I wasn’t expecting it to be.

Merricat Blackwood is one of the most unique protagonists I’ve come across (as is Eleanor Vance of Hill House, and I expect this will be a theme throughout Jackson’s works). It’s rare that a character can think “I am going to put death in their food and watch them die” and you find yourself laughing and endeared (or is that just me?). I disagree with some of the other users who have described this novel as “terrifying”, or “disturbing” – I feel like those are better words to describe Hill House. The villagers descending on the house in the climactic scene is the real threat of the novel, but it always feels so external. Even when they villagers are inside the house, destroying everything – knowing that Constance and Merricat are protecting each other makes you feel like it doesn’t even matter. They take the ruins and board it all up and make a new home, and with Merricat’s peur aeternus narration you get a sense that they’ll manage, and all they need is each other.

I think a very different story and a sadder feeling would have been given from agoraphobic Constance’s perspective, who, at 28, is a lot older and has a firmer grasp on the knowledge of what they’ve lost (”What have I done to my baby Merricat? No house. No food. And dressed in a tablecloth; what have I done?”), and she makes attempts throughout the novel to restore normalcy when cousin Charles is over (considering wearing pearls, trying to curb Merricat’s wildness, believing she should step out into the world again for everyone’s benefit). Constance feels to me a lot like a less bitter, less self-centric Eleanor Vance, even down to being the carer of an older relative. But unlike Eleanor, Constance has her loving sister, and so instead of being consumed by the house at the end, they fold into it, becoming part of the village folklore like two witches from a fairytale.

P.S. I would give anything for a Guillermo Del Toro adaptation of this book.
P.P.S Somehow this answers a wish I’ve often repeated to myself – the wish that Chan-Wook Park’s Stoker had originally been a novel. Many aspects remind me of it. Also vaguely remiscent of Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale.