It gives nothing away to say that Natalie Waite, the young woman at the center of Hangsaman, is tightly wound. The cover of the relatively new Penguin Classics edition of the book features a young woman writing a letter to her Dad, but the letter is spattered with blood.
That illustration reflects the intensity of this story, which starts with Natalie living at home, with her brother and extremely dysfunctional parents. The only problem is that once she escapes them physically, she discovers that they stick with her in her head, and once she pushes them out of her head, she’s surprised and bewitched by the things that take their place.
Everyone knows Shirley Jackson from her powerful story “The Lottery,” but she also wrote the novel that was the basis for the famous movie, The Haunting of Hill House, and the masterful We Have Always Lived in the Castle, a tale of psychological fragility and the corrosive idea that history somehow turns into destiny (and that’s not a good thing).
Hangsaman was written in 1951 and I had never heard of it until I found it on the shelf at the library.
Jackson is a fantastic vivid and nuanced writer, capable of rendering the stream of conscious thoughts of a young woman like Natalie so that they represent her disorientation and naiveté but also give us a sophisticated and nuanced view of her psychological state. Something like being inside and outside the scene at the same time, analyst and analysand simultaneously.
Jackson is interested in the way the psyche interacts with a civilization that is really alien to the desires and prerogatives of the free spirit. In Hangsaman lonely Natalie yearns for connection, but when she finds it she is reminded why she was alone in the first place.
The jacket copy says this story is somewhat based on the tale of a disappeared Bennington student, but the delights and horrors it offers aren’t those of a tawdry paperback true crime story, but rather the exacting expression of a writer who seems to believe that the membrane that separates an individual from the outside world is truly porous, and writes as if it were.