21. A novel by a famous author, other than the one(s) they are best known for: Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson
List Progress: 2/30
Some stories just don’t coalesce. The pieces are all there, and you can see what the author is going for, but the whole ends up being just a bit less than the sum of its parts. Hangsaman, an early novel by horror giant Shirley Jackson, has a lot of big ideas, but when they don’t gel together by the end, the result is a small story. Not a bad one, just one that seemed like it was going to be a lot more impactful than it ended up being.
Jackson is known to this day as an author of atmospheric, creeping horror born out of social mores, typified in her biggest successes The Lottery, The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The lead of Hangsaman, Natalie Waite, is a typical Jackson protagonist: a repressed, disturbed young woman who retreats to fantasies when the world around her is too restrictive. Natalie has grown up under the controlling guidance of her academic father, and when she steps into a world partially beyond his grasp (a women’s college hand-picked by him), she gravitates to other big, controlling personalities. She feels adrift, even when pulled into the orbit of a dysfunctional married couple: her English professor and his former-student wife. Nothing has prepared this young woman to forge her own path, and her world cannot withstand the lack of boundaries for long.
Hangsaman is divided into three major sections, and while each of the three is interesting in its own way, they don’t seem to communicate much with each other. This works well in the transition from the first to the second: a traumatic event that happens at Natalie’s home is quickly moved past as she is caught up in the chaos of going to school, and the narrative reflects Natalie’s refusal to cope with her trauma. But moving from the second section to the third feels like entering the ending to a different book, as aspects that have been slowly simmering are suddenly brought to a full boil. This coincides with the introduction of Natalie’s strange friend Tony, who is such an escalation of previous themes of the book that she should have perhaps been left on the cutting room floor.
Shirley Jackson was a talented author, and there is a lot of effective uneasiness threaded through Hangsaman. But all in all, it ends in neither a bang nor a whisper, but a bit of a shrug, and it is clear why this is not one of Jackson’s most-remembered works.
Would I Recommend It: Not really.