Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book


Rate this book
Hangsaman is Miss Jackson's second novel. The story is a simple one but the overtones are immediately present. "Natalie Waite who was seventeen years old but who felt that she had been truly conscious only since she was about fifteen lived in an odd corner of a world of sound and sight, past the daily voices of her father and mother and their incomprehensible actions." In a few graphic pages, the family is before us—Arnold Waite, a writer, egotistical and embittered; his wife, the complaining martyr; Bud, the younger brother who has not yet felt the need to establish his independence; and Natalie, in the nightmare of being seventeen.

The Sunday afternoon cocktail party, to which Arnold Waite has invited his literary friends and neighbors, serves to etch in the details of this family's life, and to draw Natalie into the vortex. The story concentrates on the next few critical months in Natalie's life, away at college, where each experience reproduces on a larger scale the crucial failure of her emotional life at home. With a mounting tension rising from character and situation as well as the particular magic of which Miss Jackson is master, the novel proceeds inexorably to the stinging melodrama of its conclusion. The bitter cruelty of the passage from adolescence to womanhood, of a sensitive and lonely girl caught in a world not of her own devising, is a theme well suited to Miss Jackson's brilliant talent.

191 pages, Mass Market Paperback

First published January 1, 1951

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

Shirley Jackson

273 books7,901 followers
Shirley Jackson was an influential American author. A popular writer in her time, her work has received increasing attention from literary critics in recent years. She has influenced such writers as Stephen King, Nigel Kneale, and Richard Matheson.

She is best known for her dystopian short story, "The Lottery" (1948), which suggests there is a deeply unsettling underside to bucolic, smalltown America. In her critical biography of Shirley Jackson, Lenemaja Friedman notes that when Shirley Jackson's story "The Lottery" was published in the June 28, 1948, issue of The New Yorker, it received a response that "no New Yorker story had ever received." Hundreds of letters poured in that were characterized by, as Jackson put it, "bewilderment, speculation and old-fashioned abuse."

Jackson's husband, the literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, wrote in his preface to a posthumous anthology of her work that "she consistently refused to be interviewed, to explain or promote her work in any fashion, or to take public stands and be the pundit of the Sunday supplements. She believed that her books would speak for her clearly enough over the years." Hyman insisted the darker aspects of Jackson's works were not, as some critics claimed, the product of "personal, even neurotic, fantasies", but that Jackson intended, as "a sensitive and faithful anatomy of our times, fitting symbols for our distressing world of the concentration camp and the Bomb", to mirror humanity's Cold War-era fears. Jackson may even have taken pleasure in the subversive impact of her work, as revealed by Hyman's statement that she "was always proud that the Union of South Africa banned The Lottery', and she felt that they at least understood the story".

In 1965, Jackson died of heart failure in her sleep, at her home in North Bennington Vermont, at the age of 48.

Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
1,673 (24%)
4 stars
2,726 (39%)
3 stars
1,924 (27%)
2 stars
484 (6%)
1 star
122 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 995 reviews
Profile Image for emma.
1,822 reviews45.6k followers
January 17, 2023
honestly scared of what i'll become when i've read everything by shirley jackson.

this was a slow start but was eventually eerie and captivating and really no one has ever done it like she has!!!

it's scary how accurate this is to the college experience in spite of being a bajillion years old and horror-adjacent.

i guess also college is horror-adjacent.

and in many ways a bajillion years old.

bottom line: is there a shirley jackson fan club i can join? i seek my fellow freaks and weirdos
Profile Image for Robin.
475 reviews2,557 followers
October 17, 2020
This is one strange little book. Francine Prose agrees, in her foreword, saying she wished she knew about Hangsaman back when she was teaching a course called "Strange Books".

It's strange because it's Shirley Jackson (her second novel) so you go into it with a certain amount of expectation. If you're like me, you've probably read The Haunting of Hill House or at least The Lottery and so you think, yeah, this is going to be spooky, look at that cover with the noose as a frame for the crazed female face, not to mention the title.

Then you get into the book, waiting for the floorboards to creak, or chains to shake, or moans to echo from the attic. But instead, you find a seventeen year old girl at home, with her narcissistic writer father and her mother who drinks too much (guess why?). Later on, you find her at college, painfully alone, a witness to the shallow interactions of her peers. In the final section, she's sorting through tarot cards with a friend who has suddenly appeared, and they are buttering buns for a one-armed man, and they are taking a bus to an abandoned carnival the very end of the line and....

Like I said, it's a strange little book. But if I were to say it wasn't frightening, I would be wrong. It's a coming of age story mixed with the doom one associates with The Bell Jar. A coming of death story, perhaps? And how can we blame her if she's tempted to go that way, when her eyes are opened to the surreal, nightmarish qualities of the world. A father who is creepy and controlling. A mother, who is ultimately disappointed with her lot. She's got a few fabulously rendered drunken soliloquies, by the way - here's just part of one:

"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."

The structure of this novel is odd, too. A major plot point is never revisited. One character appears completely out of the blue. The story never feels like it's going anywhere. It just kind of... happens. Or, unravels. A great, looming, mad unravelling. Jackson leads you by the cold, clammy hand, and you can't help but follow.

So yes, the book is strange. It's about the strangeness of the world - and whether you can look at it in the eye and... survive. It's amazing, now that I think of it, that so many of us do.

3.5 stars
Profile Image for Alex.
1,418 reviews4,326 followers
October 18, 2018
Shirley Jackson writes mysteries where the mystery is, do you live in a sane world? Is it mad? Is there magic? Is it good or bad magic?

Natalie Waite isn't sure she exists at all:
Or even suppose, imagine, could it be true? that she was confined, locked away, pounding wildly against the bars on the window, attacking the keepers, biting at the doctors, screaming down the corridors that she was someone named Watalie Naite..."

And later: "'We are on a carpet,' she announced soberly. 'It unrolls in front of us, but in back of us it rolls up and there is nothing under it.'" Shirley Jackson would have loved the theory that we're all sprites in a computer simulation in some entirely other civilization. Or maybe she would have shrugged and said yeah, obviously.

Until recently Jackson was best-known for her short story The Lottery, frequently assigned in high school during a segment that invariably also includes Ray Bradbury's All Summer in a Day. Her novels are gaining recognition now, though, as she moves forward to join a cohort of savage women like Joyce Carol Oates and Muriel Spark. Her best-known books are Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. They have a gothic feel. They're about outsiders. They sit alone at cafeteria tables because Carson McCullers and Emily Bronte are alone at tables in other cafeterias.

Hangsaman was Jackson's second novel, and it's not entirely tightly wound. Its plot is messy. It can be divided into three parts. Jackson doesn't really lay any of it out for you. She asks a lot from you, and it can be a little frustrating.

The Three Shirley Jackson Books I've Read, In Descending Order Of Plot Tidiness

We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Haunting of Hill House

But listen, she still has yet to write a single sentence that I haven't loved. She hits this sweet spot for me: she's unique but accessible. The other day we were talking about what author we'd recommend to a non-reader who wanted to try a "classic"; I said Shirley Jackson. My answer to a lot of questions is Shirley Jackson. She's one of my actual favorites.

Appendix: Books Mentioned
The book Tony reads to Natalie ("Alice came out of her room with only her shoes and stockings on...") is The Way of a Man with a Maid, an anonymous 1908 BDSM novel that's decent for what it is. What it is is smut. Obviously I read and reviewed it.

The fun but not super informative foreword by Francine Prose mentions a college class she taught called "Strange Books." Obviously we all wish we were there. The syllabus, as far as she tells us, included:
- Jakob von Gunten by Robert Walser
- The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz
And unspecified works by:
- Nikolai Gogol (here's a good collection)
- Heinrich Kleist (author of The Marquise of O)
- Jane Bowles (Two Serious Ladies is so fucking cool)
- Henry Green (Party Going is strange and wonderful)
- Wallace Shawn (the dude who played the smartest man in the world in Princess Bride? He writes?)
- Roberto Bolaño (2666 is really something else)
- Felisberto Hernández (I dunno)
- Dezső Kosztolányi (she mentions Skylark in one interview)
- Hans Christian Anderson (that guy)

(I did some research online and fleshed the list out a bit, but found no more specifics. Have emailed her begging for the exact reading list. I am a thorough person.)

(Update: she didn't write me back. Sad me.)
Profile Image for Aniko Carmean.
Author 9 books12 followers
July 4, 2014
I have never read anything like HANGSAMAN. It is chilling, hyper-surreal, and told with a mind-altering narrative voice. HANGSAMAN is like shooting a cocktail of vodka and meth: it's weird, burns like hell, and you don't come down from those fever dreams the same person you were before the experience.

The most amazing thing about HANGSAMAN is that, on the surface, nothing happens. A girl, Natalie, attends a dinner party where she is possibly assaulted, starts college, drinks a lot of martinis with professors, and goes on long, thought-addled walks. This doesn't even sound like a story worth reading, and that's where Jackson works some voodoo. She manages to create a dense atmosphere of isolation that permeates the spaces between the non-events. Even the trauma that triggers Natalie's increasingly strange psychological break doesn't "happen" in the usual sense of events unfolding on a page. Instead, Jackson gives the reader access to only the reverberations of the event. This is either a masterful literary technique, or dark magic, and I'm placing bets on the latter.

The story received through the twisted and unreliable narrator who recites Natalie's thoughts is fascinating, in the way a fish hook piercing flesh is sickly fascinating. Natalie doesn't fit in, and the details of life in an all-girls dorm is unimpeachable, including the strange spate of random thefts. Several girls report being slapped awake in the middle of the night, but are too startled to identify the culprit. Is it Natalie, slapping and stealing? There are plenty of clues it probably, maybe is - but HANGSAMAN is not a novel of absolutes. Jackson litters the work with half-hints I read with the excitement of discovering something amazingly rare in a pile of moldering leaves. For example, Natalie writes gut-wrenching letters home to her father, but the missives may or may not have been intercepted by her mother. Natalie may or may not be in a sexual relationship with a girl in the dorm, or Natalie may or may not "simply" have an alternate personality brought on by the trauma that we never see directly.

The narrator is a wily one, and it is unclear where Natalie ends and the narrator begins. The two bleed into one another until you cannot distinguish your vantage within the story. This is part of Jackson's dark magic: she gives you direct access to the experience of a deeply disturbed mind, but without the gimmicky feel of first person. Indeed, having an "I" in HANGSAMAN would change the texture of the work, damage it irreparably. Natalie's entire problem is she has no idea who she is, and just as she was on the cusp of discovery, trauma knocked her from being a bit overly imaginative into being batshit crazy. Natalie has no "I," and Jackson wisely steers clear of trying to force one. Jackson leverages the strange, blended narrative persona to excellent effect right from the opening scenes. A detective "interrogates" Natalie… in her mind. It is only on a second (or third) read that it sinks in that the exchange between Natalie and her imaginary detective is so very, very strange because the detective is prescient. His questions can be applied to multiple situations that arise throughout the novel, and it is illuminating that at the time the questions are shared with the reader, they are entirely out of context. In some sense, it feels like Natalie's future self (the narrator?) is interjecting thoughts back into the past. It exacerbates the disorientation HANGSAMAN inspires, and it resonates with the strange psychology in us all.

HANGSAMAN is a bizarre, nightmare trance. I came up from reading it feeling deeply affected, infected. The prose warped my mind. I found myself thinking like the narrator reporting Natalie's musings; it was disturbing. HANGSAMAN is not a book for anyone on the brink of a mental breakdown. It is a dangerous beast. It will swallow you whole. It is frightfully unique, and one of the most masterful novels I've experienced. 
October 26, 2021
| | blog | tumblr | ko-fi | |

“Dearest dearest darling most important dearest darling Natalie—this is me talking, your own priceless own Natalie.”

Alice in Wonderland meets The Bell Jar in Shirley Jackson's much overlooked Hangsaman.
The first time I read this exceedingly perplexing novel I felt confused. Although Hangsaman shares many similarities with Jackson’s more well known novels (yet again we have a disaffected, hypersensitive, and alienated heroine), this is her most elusive work.
A second and third reading however made me much more appreciative of this peculiar anti-bildungsroman. What I previously thought of as being a confounding narrative with an unclear storyline became a clever take of the three-acts typical of a monomyth.
Hangsaman focuses on Natalie Waite, a troubling young woman whose intolerance towards others makes her retreat into a series of disturbing fantasies. The narrative chronicles Natalie’s attempts to navigate the murky waters of adulthood. However, Natalie’s journey into adulthood is not only essentially negative but concludes ambiguously. Readers will find Natalie’s self-alienation, which dictates her behaviour and thoughts as well as shaping her worldview and imagination, alienating, as we are left wondering just how unreliable a narrator she is.

At the age of seventeen, Natalie believes that “she had been truly conscious only since she was about fifteen” and lives “in an odd corner of a world of sound and sight past the daily voices of her father and mother and their incomprehensible actions”. Forced into daily tête-à-têtes with her pompous writer-father—who enjoys disparaging Natalie’s creative writing—and made to listen to her neurotic and alcoholic mother’s diatribes against marriage, Natalie’s relationship with herself and others is already mired in ambivalence.
In order to please her father Natalie has spent most of her life pretending to be someone she is not, and her self-alienation partly stems from this forced concealment of her ‘real self’ The disjunction—or split—between Natalie’s “inner” self and her outer “personality” causes her to feel divorced from her own experiences and leads to her self-alienation, forcing her to create a provisional ‘new’ personality.
On campus, Natalie’s only connection to her father is through their correspondence, and in these letters she glamorizes her college experience. In reality, college is not the ‘new start’ Natalie had hoped for. As she is constantly in the presence of other girls, Natalie struggles to maintain a ‘personality’ akin to those whom she regards “trivial people” and “mediocre” . Her self-alienation induces her to view her own personality as ‘alien’, permeating her the way she thinks, perceives, feels, and behaves with a sense of unrealness. No longer under her father’s watchful eye, Natalie’s unease increases and her unfixed personality distorts her worldview, leading her to speculate whether her name is truly Natalie or if she as appropriate another girl’s identity. She is scornful of sororities, rejects offers of friendships, and regards with contempt the books, subjects, and theories that she is meant to be studying.
In an attempt to find and assert her own individuality, she seeks refuge in her own writing, deriving strength from this process, and in her make-believe magic. Although she becomes briefly involved in the domestic life of one of her professors (this particularly rocky marriage seemed rather autobiographical) it is only when she meets the mysterious and alluring Tony that Natalie is able to connect to someone.

The confounding narrative of Hangsaman is peppered by odd interactions and monologues that are often as amusing as they are bizarre. The storyline begins with an extended scene in which Natalie’s parents are hosting a party at their house. The party is not a fun affair, and Natalie is involved in an incident that may or may not have actually happened (yeah, I know). The details around this episode remain blurry, and readers will have to draw their own conclusions. Although at college Natalie becomes increasingly divorced from her self—unsure of her name, qualities, and her very existence—it is this very act of self-doubting which drives Natalie’s quest for a suitable identity. As she grows contemptuous of the people she interacts with—students and professors alike—she attains self-validation through her own writing and imagination where she can contemplate grandiose visions of her self. Since Natalie, similarly to Jackson herself, equates normalcy with a loss of individuality, in her imaginary worlds she examines the depths of her own awareness and identity by endowing herself with magical gifts and powerful personalities (she is a ‘mercenary’, ‘gladiator’ and ‘creator’). The subversive components of her fantasies, which often build upon her fears—such as dying—and desires—such as being revered—enable her to exorcise personalities and futures that do not resonate with her. Natalie’s exploration of her self, and of the different realities that may or may not be attainable, is spurred by her self-alienation. Within these narratives, Natalie confronts the dangerous and alluring world of maturity alternating between being a victim and the perpetrator of violence. By proving to herself—and the readers—that she has the strength to defy, resist and even harm others, Natalie can finally become enfranchised from her controlling father and depressed mother.
Jackson’s narrative, fraught with ambivalence, culminates ominously, leaving readers wondering what was real and what wasn’t. In spite of the many disquieting and or perplexing moments/scenes in this novel, Jackson's offbeat humour makes for a truly entertaining read.

Note: the first time I read this I gave it 3 stars. This third time around I am giving it 5 stars. While I now consider it an all time favourite, I did not know what to make of it the first time I read it….so perhaps you should approach this novel with caution. Although it has many Jacksonesque motifs (female doubles, themes of alienation and paranoia, dark humour, misanthropic characters, witchcraft) it is a far more slippery creature than her more well-known works.
Profile Image for J..
455 reviews180 followers
October 25, 2016
At first I wondered how complicated to get with this, because it isn't a simple story. But there isn't much you need to know, going in. A coming-of-ager but in the Bell Jar or Catcher In The Rye vein; author Shirley Jackson's quirky, truthful-feeling book hits home with force, if not exactly heart-warmingly.

A sophisticated, naive ingénue narrates her abrupt path from daughter and child to "college woman", sometimes at a singing pitch of self-discovery, sometimes reading all the signs wrongly and foundering on the rocks. Can sophisticated and naïve both be present at once ? There's nothing new here, exactly, but it isn't the lyrics so much as the music, the fretful high-wire performance, the atmosphere of precocious youth wasting itself in girlish crushes, misread friendships and in the inevitable lonely vigils of the night, sighing ... that rings so true.

Jackson has worked out a kind of integrated second-person commentary, often in the voicing of a news reporter, a detective or some other questioning persona--- but within the narration of the main character, Natalie:

"She wanted to sing and did so, soundlessly, her mouth against the fogged window of the bus, thinking as she sang, And when I first saw Natalie Waite, the most incredible personality of our time, the unbelievably talented, vivid, almost girlish creature--when I first saw her, she was sitting in a bus, exactly as I or you might be, and for a minute I noticed nothing of her richness ... and then she turned and smiled at me. Now, knowing her for what she is, the most vividly talented actress (murderess? courtesan? dancer?) of our time or perhaps any time, I can see more clearly the enchanting contradictions within her--her humor, her vicious flashing temper, so easily aroused and so quickly controlled by her iron will; her world-weary cynicism (she has, after all, suffered more than perhaps any other from the stings and arrows of outrageous fortune), her magnificent mind, so full of information, of deep pockets never explored wherein lie glowing thoughts ..."

Stings. This can be fun, light and satirical, but it can also tilt toward the unnerving, as it is literally another voice in her head. Jackson is after the coping mechanisms that come to us in our adolescence, those that evolve to distance or protect us -- and those that are so witheringly critical that they are generally blunted and stomped by experience.

There is a great supporting cast, so naturally rendered that they somehow don't come off as instant 'characters'. Which they are. The insufferably vain Father character here is strikingly, embarrassingly funny and lame. His letters to Natalie at college are little masterpieces of self-importance and blocked empathy.

Movies come to mind. Resemblances stretch from the absolutely blatant fraudulence of Billy Liar all the way to the absolutely confoundingly weirdo Carnival Of Souls. Step right up.

There are three balanced and interlocked acts to this book, each with its own timbre and emotional charge; it isn't perfect, we overspend time in Natalie's internal argument that would have been better externalized-- but what gets across is compelling and the faults are minor. The third and Finale part is beautifully quirked-out and inspired. Probably best not to say how or why.

Giving this five stars, as much for intent and inspiration as for execution.

Profile Image for Fionnuala.
774 reviews
October 31, 2019
I read three Shirley Jackson novels this month.

The first was a bookgroup choice to celebrate Hallow'een, the eerily entitled Haunting of Hill House. I didn't write a review as it inspired few thoughts worth recording. It made me laugh a little though.

The second was We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I read it to see what I'd missed in the first, to try to figure out what there was in Jackson's writing that made other people rave about it. And there were some great paragraphs, and I liked the interior world of the main character, but I was still a bit puzzled about Jackson's reputation.

So I read Hangsaman.
Now I'm convinced. Shirley Jackson describes the terrors of a sensitive adolescent teetering on the edge of adulthood brilliantly. She is a fine writer.

“The trouble is,” Tony said, grinning, “that you’ve got this world, see? And you’ve got enemies in it, and they’re enemies because they’re smarter. So you invent someone smart enough to destroy your enemies, you invent them so smart you’ve got a new enemy.”
Profile Image for James Everington.
Author 62 books80 followers
February 20, 2015
Hangsaman is a strange novel by any standards; as if trying to remember a dream I feel the urge to write this blog quickly as I can, before it’s unique internal logic fades from my mind. Its central character is Natalie Whaite, a seventeen-year old American girl on the verge of going to college. The surface level events of the story are mundane, trite even: Natalie has bourgeois parents, and goes to a respectable girls-only college. But what happens externally is not really the point; this is a story about Natalie’s inner life, and how she reacts to and absorbs the world around her: parties thrown by her parents; the machinations of cliquey and spiteful college girls; the strangeness of returning to her family abode after months away. Transformed by Jackson’s inimitable prose, these mundane events seem vividly odd; sinister even. How much of this sense of threat is real and how much projected onto the world by Natalie’s precocious yet vulnerable psyche is one of the central ambiguities of the book.

Right from the start it is clear Natalie has a vivid imagination; much like Eleanor from The Haunting Of Hill House, Natalie is someone whose propensity for daydreaming and fantasy seems alarmingly strong. If her urge for escapism is so dominant, what is she escaping from? Early on in the story a potentially traumatic event is hinted at, and it is clear that Natalie is repressing something – but exactly what occurred is opaque, repressed by Jackson’s narrative as much as by Natalie’s mind. Exactly what Natalie is thinking and feeling is often obscure – it certainly isn’t revealed directly in her chirpy interactions with a college professor and his young wife, or in her playful letters home to her father. But what the reader becomes alert to is the brief glimpses that Natalie might actually feel unbearably lonely and distanced from the world. And it’s easy to understand why Natalie might be so alienated, when it and the characters it is peopled with are presented with satirical humour by Jackson. In part this works so well because isn’t this how we see the world as a teenager, as something faintly unrealistic, as a joke being played on us? Because everything is focused through the character of Natalie, the differences in tone (the novel can be cruelly humorous one minute, and disturbingly sinister the next) don’t seem to jar. It shouldn’t work, but it does.

As the book reaches its final third, it darkens considerably, and the exact extent of what is real and what Natalie imagines is unclear, with double and triple bluffs confounding the reader. It’s a compelling read, and despite similarities to The Bell Jar and The Catcher In The Rye, a unique experience. There’s no one quite like Shirley Jackson andHangsaman seems to me to be her first queer, twisted masterpiece.
Profile Image for BJ.
90 reviews19 followers
October 23, 2022
Sentence for sentence, Shirley Jackson is one of the great prose stylists in English literature. To my astonishment, Hangsaman is, if anything, a better novel than We Have Always Lived in the Castle or The Haunting of Hill House—stranger, more complete in and of itself, if also more difficult and more distressing. The satire is funnier and truer (no wonder the other faculty wives did not like her!), the humor blacker, the horror and trauma of it somehow at once closer and further from the surface. Jackson's uncanny ability to hold reality itself in a state of suspense reaches a sublime peak, from which we can only look down in giggling horror at the tiny town arrayed beneath us, at the university with its carefully manicured lawns; from which peak we might, like Natalie Waite "pick up one of the houses, any one, and, holding it gently in one hand, pull it carefully apart … with great delicacy taking the pieces of it off one after another: first the door and then, dislodging the slight nails with care, the right front corner of the house, board by board … then the stairs, step by step, and all this while the mannikins inside run screaming from each section of the house to a higher and more concealed room, crushing one another and stumbling and pulling frantically."
Profile Image for Blair.
1,744 reviews4,164 followers
February 9, 2020
The opening chapter of Hangsaman is a confidence trick. (Also something that could be said of the book as a whole.) I wondered, at first, whether it was really for me. It seems to be offering a portrait of a middle-class American family in typical 1950s suburbia. The protagonist is their 17-year-old daughter, Natalie, and the lengthy scene depicts the Waites preparing for a garden party. While beautifully written, it contains little to intrigue other than Natalie's internal flights of fancy, the fictional worlds she places herself in even as she participates in the everyday routines of family life. And then, in the last few pages of the chapter, Natalie appears to experience a shocking trauma (described, like so many things in the story, indirectly). I was wrongfooted and irretrievably hooked.

When Natalie goes away to college, she welcomes the promise of reinvention. 'It was, precisely, a new start.' It doesn't quite unfold as she hopes: Natalie struggles to make friends; the people she does connect with – a strange, delusional girl who knocks on her door at night, the alcoholic young wife of a professor, two girls who are trying to seduce said professor – present their own problems. Natalie can always retreat to 'her own sweet dear home of a mind, where she was safe, protected, priceless'. Yet of course this is also a trap.

Jackson is, of course, known for her horror fiction; in Hangsaman, the biggest thing Natalie has to fear is overthinking. Which doesn't make it any less frightening. The climax is an ambiguous affair in which I found it difficult to distinguish Natalie's imagination from her reality, and I suppose that's the point. It is a mirror to the ending of the first chapter, both scenes taking place in a forest clearing, both demonstrating Jackson's skill in portraying Natalie's fractured identity. Uncertainty and precarity haunt this novel. I don't think it is meant to be fully understood.

Profile Image for Roman Clodia.
2,392 reviews2,386 followers
June 23, 2022
"I don't think they've estimated us correctly," Natalie said. "They seem to think we're weaker than we really are. I personally feel that I have talents for resistance they don't even suspect."

What a very slippery book this is, even by Shirley Jackson's high standards! A kind of twisted bildungsroman, it follows Natalie Waite, a young woman already damaged by her controlling father and her neurotic, put-upon mother ('See that your marriage is happy, child. Don't ever let your husband know what you're thinking or doing'), who may - or may not - have been assaulted at a family party ('I will not think about it, it doesn't matter,' she told herself, and her mind repeated idiotically, it doesn't matter, it doesn't matter, it doesn't matter') and whose inner world is both threatening and, oddly, a form of haven from reality.

Jackson has us off-kilter right from the start when Natalie's father slides his napkin into 'the ring which was composed of two snakes curiously and obscenely entwined' - presumably some kind of ouroboros emblem of death and rebirth, also associated with various magical and alchemical traditions, looking forward to the significance of tarot cards in a later section. But Natalie is already on the edge - her stabilising fantasy when reality gets too much for her is imagining being burned alive, as witches once were.

While, on one hand, we can trace a kind of mystical or psychic journey for Natalie complete with a section ending in a mythic dark wood, on the other, Jackson grounds her story in reality: first year at college, freshman initiation ceremonies, academic studies. The result is a sort of hyper-reality, sometimes verging on the surreal and it's hard to pin down exactly what - and who - might be real, and what an insight into Natalie's verdant imaginary world.

By the end of the book some kind of resolution and journey's end, or, at least, staging post, seems to have been reached but whether it's positive for Natalie or not is left open-ended and ambivalent.

Even though this is early Jackson, it's an immensely sophisticated and yes, puzzling book - but in a good way. Don't expect the more directed storylines of The Haunting of Hill House or We Have Always Lived in the Castle - this may pick up on similar themes of oppressive patriarchy and the psychic journeys of young women with a soupcon of witchcraft and supernatural ritual, but it's more ambiguous and slippery than either of those books.
Profile Image for Teresa.
Author 8 books768 followers
November 16, 2019

More often than not, the covers of Shirley Jackson’s books are wildly inaccurate as to what’s inside.

I didn’t connect with this the first time I read it; maybe I needed a lot of distance from my own seventeen-year-old self. Being in someone’s head, at least as rendered by Jackson, is intense. Natalie describes her state of mind as so close… to the irrational and so tempted by it (page 130)— what she’s experiencing throughout is the process of individuation.

In the first section, as Natalie tries to communicate with parents who are both liberal and restrictive, she narrates a running (detective) story in her head to block out their noise. An incident before she leaves home for the first time seems almost thrown away, but more than once it’s brought back to the reader’s mind, as Natalie tries to suppress it. Here she’s speaking of something else, but a careful reader remembers what happened in the section before: “how perfectly abominable it is to be the receiver of such a thing, how dreadful and horrifying it is to have no choice at all (Page 131)

Natalie is not like the other girls at the exclusive college her father chose for her, and she denies she’s lonely. One girl who tries to befriend her is unsuitable in many ways, as a scary scene at the end of the second section illustrates. Also unsuitable are two popular girls that use Natalie, and the girls’ former friend who’s married to a young professor. A chilling episode of Natalie standing under trees, looking at the houses, thinking her revenge upon campus inhabitants is fantastical, but palpable.

Natalie resists going home for a visit and stays only two nights over the Thanksgiving holiday: The reader discovers why in the third and final section. Themes found in Jackson’s short stories and later novels are also here, including pitting two individuals against the mocking, giggling “beasts” outside the door; and paranoia, which at first seems just part of a game the two are playing.

In the foreword of this edition Francine Prose says if she’d known of this novel sooner, she would’ve taught it in her Strange Books literature class. She writes that it shares with the other “strange” books she taught not only oddity but beauty, originality, a certain visionary intensity, and the ability to make us feel as if we have been invited into a private, very intimate world with striking similarities to our world, whatever that might be. She describes how good a writer Jackson is, stating her sentences are “occasionally reminiscent of Henry James.” Over previous Jackson readings I thought of him but hesitated to go there -- nice to have the affirmation. (If you’re not a James fan, don't let that put you off: It’s not that noticeable and I don't mean to overstate it.)
Profile Image for Faith.
1,822 reviews499 followers
March 18, 2022
Natalie lives with her parents and younger brother and us about to go to college. Her father is a successful writer who “trains” his bright daughter and dominates his wife who has learned the downside of marrying a narcissistic academic. At the college she encounters how coldly vicious girls can be and she meets another academic couple whose mantra should be “ be careful what you wish for”.

The writing was beautiful. I particularly liked the intelligent, articulate and often witty exchanges between the father and daughter. The book was really a very good depiction of the confusion and alienation felt by a 17 year old girl. The last quarter of the book was a little too weird for me and I don’t think that enough was made of the traumatic event that occurred near the beginning of the book, but this was the 1950s so it probably makes sense. 4.5 stars
Profile Image for Sam Quixote.
4,451 reviews12.8k followers
November 9, 2020
17 year old Natalie is becoming an adult. Before setting off to college, she attends a disastrous party and then finds herself increasingly isolated and fraught in her new surroundings. That is until she meets the mysterious Tony, another outcast at the school - but who is Tony really and what does she want with Natalie?

Shirley Jackson’s second novel, Hangsaman, is only slightly better than her first, The Road Through the Wall, though that isn’t saying much as her first novel was utterly terrible. Hangsaman is better because Jackson has pared down the cast significantly. Rather than trying to write an ensemble, she instead focuses on the kind of character she would go on to perfect in her later books: a troubled young woman, socially ostracized, with a secret or two, and emotional/mental problems that escalate as the story goes on.

That said, there’s not much about Natalie and her world that was particularly of interest. She’s introduced as already kinda unbalanced, being interrogated by an imaginary detective for an imaginary crime in her family home (which turns out to be foreshadowing), and she has a weirdly close relationship with her pretentious dad. The denouement of the party was sorta interesting if only for being one of the few eventful things that actually happens in the book!

There’s a theme of sad wives married to dickhead academic husbands that I wonder isn’t autobiographical - Jackson expressing her true feelings in being married to her academic husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman (who was also unfaithful to her). I didn’t like Tony either - I called it immediately and the reveal wasn’t impressive, nor was the ending, which was flat.

Mostly, I was really, really bored reading this. Nothing much happens. The academic couple Natalie befriends were dull, the things Natalie does and thinks are dull, the prose is dull - it’s just a very dull coming-of-age novel. If you’ve read Jackson’s later, much better novels, you can see the foundations for the types of story she would write superbly here, but it’s not enough to recommend Dullsaman even to fans of the author.
Profile Image for Lee Foust.
Author 7 books148 followers
March 6, 2020
It occurred to me, back in October, that I probably read a lot more male authors than female--not because--at least I hope not because--I'm sexist, but because my culture is and one is nothing if not a product of many crosscurrents of life--culture, family, language, education, etc. etc. So, thanks to Goodreads I was able to chart just exactly how gender-skewed my reading is: 2012: 3/18, 2013: 11/45, 2014: 9/26, 2015: 8/41. Even by consciously choosing those books by females on my to-read shelf over the final months of 2016 I only managed to read 11/50 by female authors. This is not acceptable, I decided, and it must change. So right now 18 of my last 21 books read have been by female authors. Many of them have been terrific--in fact I see no correlation between gender and aesthetic literary quality at all--it's only the bias of the established cannon and my trying to read all of the great books, I suppose, that's unbalanced my reading by gender. But I must say, because I'm so much more aware of an author's gender at this particular moment, that this is the novel that I was looking for, waiting for.

I don't think a man (of any gender, really, what I mean to say is someone with a man's experience of the world) could have written Hangsaman. This is a novel that's genius lies at the heart of female experience. I felt privileged to read it and enter into this mysterious world of female adolescence, alienation, imagination (coping mechanism?) and, ultimately, horror. No, it's not a Gothic like The Haunting of Hill House but its protagonist's alienation, subtle refusal, which grows into a near-abandonment of the world she knows but can only fear for the unknown (even suicide) is much more terrifying than any ghost story will ever be. It really touched a nerve.

Amazing and extra chilling here--and I think part and parcel of female experience--is that Natalie isn't really allowed to have experiences the way men are. Man are encouraged to self-reflect, to criticize the world, to share their opinion, to feel that they're at the center of the world and to do what they please in answer to it. Early on (the novel is in three unnumbered sections, rather like a three-act play) we see Natalie's brother opting out of the patriarchy's cocktail party--even condescendingly offering to help Natalie escape with him. But, no, like most women, I surmise, Natalie's only validation is through the patriarchy itself, therefore abandoning her father's party would be the only thing worse than the awkwardness of attending it. It is awkward. She's raped in the end but appears to take it in stride: she has no language, apparently, to speak of it except once, later, in passing, as "the bad thing." We are, as I mentioned above, the product of our culture--see early 1950s USA suburban Middle Class--rape was not a thing spoken of. Natalie tolerates it. As her culture tolerates it.

"..the gap between the poetry she wrote and the poetry she contained was, for Natalie, something unsolvable."

In part two, Natalie goes to college to learn to write/speak, but only finds a further segment of her father (and lesser than he!) in a prof who admires her father and appears a much less active teacher than rapist himself--well, ok, diddler of students both in the form of having married one and of courting (to put it politely, as the novel itself does) another on the side. At any rate, Natalie's confusion, resentment and interior journey only grow more and more mysterious, awkward and detached. Her grammar is corrected, but she's still not given a language with which to speak her loneliness. And that sad soliloquy of resentment and displacement is the hardest thing to speak too, even for a man--how much worse to be part of a herd of girls being trained by an all-male faculty in a college that resembles a military academy, for all of its radically progressive shenanigans. No one is even there to listen should Natalie even learn to speak her experience.

In this second section mysteries abound: there's a thief, there are voices in and out of Natalie's head, there are secret visitors in the dorms at night, un-serious initiations, threatening caretakers, there's a mysterious fellow loner girl who may be an imaginary friend or something even more perverse--we poor readers will never know the truth of it. I bring up the facts of the novel--which I normally never do in a review--because they're all, to me, replacements for the language Natalie's not learning, at college, to speak. The novel is mysterious because, without a proper language to speak it, Natalie's experience becomes this fragmentary series of disjointed mysteries. She can't really have experiences in any kind of normalizing narrative way--at least not in the male, literary/historical sense--because she hasn't the proper words with which to re-live and recount them.

Where is she then, in the novel's third section? On a dark and seemingly casually chosen road with a mysterious companion. I don't want to spoil the ending--but I can't really because it's as ineffable as the rest. There's no language to speak Natalie's story in 1951, so it remains untold. Hangsaman is the story of its own impossible composition. Its message would appear to be: give me the words to tell the real story for without them I have no meaning. Nathalie's last words in the novel (really a feeling rather than a statement) might mean that, for a Middle-Class woman in the USA in 1951, adulthood meant coming to terms with one's muteness. Not only were people of color and gays invisible (as Ralph Ellison so eloquently put it) but women, too, blended into silently the woodwork all too conveniently.

PS I forgot to mention that Shirley Jackson is the greatest composer of sentences in the English language. I used to think Hemingway, but Jackson's are just as brilliant and a tad less showy--remarkably beautiful, her sentences have the feel of a diamond cutting through glass with a clarity I thought impossible in English. I'm humbled.
Profile Image for Michael.
1,524 reviews149 followers
May 24, 2020
Eine objektive Besprechung zu Shirley Jacksons zweitem Roman HANGSAMAN (1951) fällt mir nicht leicht, bin ich doch viel zu begeistert, um zusammenhängende Gedanken & Sätze zu produzieren und würde lieber nur schwärmen und aller Welt zurufen, diesen fantastischen Roman unbedingt zu lesen.
Seit vor fünf Jahren der Nachlassband LET ME TELL YOU erschien, habe ich nichts mehr von Shirley Jackson gelesen, die nicht nur zu meinen Lieblingsautorinnen zählt, sondern die ich auch ohne Wimperngezucke als große Schwester von Sylvia Plath und Anne Sexton in die Familienbibel einschreibe. Zeit also, endlich wieder etwas von dieser notorisch unterschätzten Autorin zu lesen, der man so unglaublich viel Schaden zufügte, indem man sie in die Schublade mit der Aufschrift Horrorautorin steckte und so eine intensivere, kritischere Beschäftigung mit ihren Texten für lange Zeit zur Ausnahme machte. Es gibt Spukhäuser bei Jackson, furchtbare Steinigungsrituale und überhaupt ein Faible fürs Okkulte, das ist wahr. Abgesehen davon, dass diese Elemente bei ihr aber nie campy werde und immer einen stark psychologischen Unterbau haben, ist Jackson auch als feministische Gesellschaftskritikerin zu lesen, die als Autorin und Mutter von vier Kindern sehr genau zu schildern wusste, wie das Leben einer verheirateten Frau (mit untreuem Ehemann) in den glorreichen Fünziger Jahren des 20. Jahrhunderts in Amerika aussah.
In HANGSAMAN erleben wir den Leidensweg des Erwachsenwerdens aus Sicht der 17=jährigen Natalie, deren Eltern typische Mittelständler sind: der Vater ein mäßig erfolgreicher Schriftsteller, der mit dem Rüstzeug des Schreiberlings bewaffnet geistreich die Familie auf Distanz hält; die Mutter depressiv, festgelegt auf die Rolle des Hausmütterchens (genau dieser Konstellation wird Nat bei ihrem College=Professor wieder begegnen und Shirley Jackson selbst kannte dieses Milieu aus eigener Ehe=Erfahrung). Nat, das steht außer Frage, wird ein liberales College besuchen, doch bevor es soweit ist, wird sie unmittelbar vor ihrer Abreise während einer elterlichen Gartenparty im angrenzenden Waldstück Opfer eines sexuellen Übergriffs durch einen Bekannten des Vaters. Jackson lässt den Leser im Unklaren darüber, was genau geschehen ist, aber dass es geschehen ist lässt sich nicht überlesen.
Am College läuft für Nat von Anfang an alles schief, sie kann sich nicht einleben und findet keinen Anschluss an ihre Mitstudentinnen. Diese interessieren sich weniger für eine akademische Ausbildung als dafür, mit welchen Fertigkeiten sie sich nach dem Studium auf Männerfang begeben und eine gute Partie machen werden. Für Schwesternschaften ist Nat nicht gemacht und zieht sich immer weiter in sich zurück. Schon bald wird es schwierig, zwischen Realität und imaginärer Welt zu unterscheiden. Indem Jackson das Geschehen nicht in der Ich=Perspektive beschreibt, wie man es erwarten sollte, wird die wachsende Diskrepanz zwischen Innen= und Außenwelt bis an die Schmerzgrenze und darüber hinaus spürbar, es entsteht eine Entfremdung, die kaum heilbar scheint. Bei einem Besuch zu Thanksgiving öffnet sich Nat ihrem Vater gegenüber, aber der geht auf ihre Probleme nicht ein, sondern gibt ihr einen nutzlosen, zynischen Ratschlag.
Das also ist die Gesellschaft, die auf Natalie wartet, deren Teil sie werden soll: chromglänzende Diners, Gartenpartys, Untreue und Alkoholexzesse. Eine spiegelglatte Oberfläche, eine Konsumgesellschaft, die um das goldene Kalb tanz, während am drohenden Abgrund die Atombombe steht. Doch darüber spricht man besser nicht sondern füllt als pflichtbewusster Schauspieler die Rolle, die einem zugeschrieben ist.
Im dritten und letzten Teil des Romans geht die Post dann richtig ab. Nat entflieht mit ihrer Freundin Tony dem Campusleben und anstatt nach Europa führt der Weg sie schließlich in schwärzester Regennacht in ein Waldstück, das nicht größer ist als jenes, in welchem Nat missbraucht wurde. Dieses Mal geht es um Leben oder Tod, und ob Tony, die fast wie Kafkas Türhüter über den Eingang in den Wald wacht, überhaupt existiert oder nur eine Stimme in Nats Kopf ist, bleibt wie so vieles offen.

HANGSAMAN beschreibt die gesellschaftliche Realität des weißen Mittelstandsamerikas um 1950 aus Sicht einer hoch intelligenten jungen Frau, deren Rolle festgeschrieben ist: Kinder, Küche und optional Kirche. Es lassen sich ohne Anstrengung etliche Parallelen zu Sylvia Plath ziehen, und wo diese das Ouija =Brett konsultiert, nimmt Jackson die Tarotkarten zur Hand. Und diese sind es auch, die die okkulte Wahrheit vermitteln, dass in jedem Ding auch sein Gegenteil enthalten ist. Leben und Tod.
Profile Image for Ilana.
601 reviews161 followers
December 2, 2018
Edit: This was not a an actual review, but a very emotional and troubled response to what was an experience rather than a proper reading. I felt this book viscerally more than just read it. I wish I'd kept at distance from it so I could have appreciated it more. I've read a couple of reviews that made me appreciate it better, and I'm thankful for that. My perspective on it is definitely skewed, so you really shouldn't base your decision on it to decide whether you should read this novel or not.

I’ve just finished this book and find myself deeply disturbed by it. I’ve read quite a few of Shirley Jackson’s novels and stories by now and never been as spooked as I have been by this one. A young woman, still just a girl, with an overbearing detestable writer father who is determined to mold her in his image and who sends her (unprotesting) to the college of his choosing is how I would describe the story in one sentence. The rest you can get from the publishers blurb. From the first lines of the novel there are clear signs that Natalie doesn’t simply have an “overactive imagination”, but that she is probably experiencing schizophrenic dissociative episodes, with ongoing elaborate fantasies of having committed a horrible crime. With such a mentally damaging father and a mother who has escaped into the numbing effects of alcohol, our girl seems to be left without defenses and things can’t possibly go well for her from here, and of course, they don’t.

When she enters the all-girls college, predictably enough, she finds an even more hostile environment of cliques and hazings and not so subtle put-downs and she mostly isolates herself, and soon enough her flights of fancy take over and she become completely disconnected from reality with greater and greater frequency. This makes for some very interesting reading of the “Through the Looking Glass” variety and I have a strong intuition no author could come up with such original material without being cracked to begin with. That is probably one of the things that attracts me so much to dear Shirley, that I recognize the kindred spirit of one who uses those dark places to feed her creativity.

So far I’ve been rather amused by Jackson’s writings, even (and especially) the nastier bits have made me chuckle, but here were echoes of true and terrifying madness... because utterly beyond comprehension. Was her friend Tony for example, encountered towards the latter part of the story, and with whom she formed an obsessive, and possibility sapphic bond, actually real? I don’t know if this question has been raised before, but I felt like our Natalie was so confused and miserable by then that she may no longer have been able to tell truth from her own fiction any longer.

For my part, the only time I’ve ever felt quite this disturbed by a novel... I mean felt this particular register of disturbance, was when I read The Bell Jar at age sixteen or seventeen and was completely horrified to see a young woman just as, or possibly even more confused and crazy than me putting down her thoughts in book form. With Hangsaman, it felt like revisiting all those parts of a dreadfully painful, unmedicated adolescence and just how dangerous I felt I was to myself then... almost miraculously surviving those years against the odds, and how merciless the world was and continues to be to people who are as badly equipped to deal with the harsh realities of this world.

How to rate a book that ended up making me feel so wretched?! I found it brilliant and completely relatable for the most part, and then it took me to places I swore never to return to, for I vowed never to read The Bell Jar again for how lingering it’s oppressive effect proved to be for me, plunging me into a dark and lasting depression. This was a completely different story of course, but just as confusing somehow. Thank heavens I’ve gained much in maturity in the intervening three decades or so and have learned how to live and survive with the Black Dog, since he chooses to be in residence on a rather regular basis.

For anyone NOT suffering from an actual mental illness I suppose it might simply be an interesting and somewhat spooky ride into how scary the transition from childhood to womanhood can be. Once again, kudos to Shirley Jackson for never pulling any punches!
Profile Image for Kathleen.
Author 1 book145 followers
September 21, 2019
“I wish I were the only person in all the world, Natalie thought, with a poignant longing, thinking then that perhaps she was, after all.”

Shirley Jackson always takes you to a place where you don’t know what is real and what isn’t. In this one, she really goes out there. WAY out there. Deep into a dark forest, as a matter of fact, where I was so confused I still have no idea what was going on.

I was reminded of the Winchester Mystery House. It’s known for stairways that lead to nowhere and doors that open up to nothing. That is what happens in this book. Jackson tells us things, leads us up the stairs of a plot point, and then leaves us there, going nowhere.


Really! A dozen or so interesting storylines were started and then just completely dropped.


I guess because it’s not a story about Natalie’s relationship with her narcissistic father, or her disappointed mother, or her heartless schoolmates, intriguing as they all are. Not really. It’s about Natalie’s relationship with Natalie.

It’s the oddest thing, but I guess that is what Jackson intended me to think, that the inside of someone’s head is the oddest thing.

"I wonder what I would say to a psychoanalyst. I wonder where people find words for all the funny things inside their heads. I keep turning around in circles and finding how well things fit together, but nothing is ever complete. I think if I could tell someone everything, every single thing, inside my head, then I would be gone, and not existing any more, and I would sink away into that lovely nothing-space where you don’t have to worry anymore and no one ever hears you or cares and you can say anything but of course you wouldn’t be any more at all and you couldn’t really do anything so it wouldn’t matter what you did.”

So far, my own reading of this author has taught me I had better watch out. Threats are everywhere. People will attack me (The Lottery), houses will attack me (The Haunting of Hill House), my family will attack me (We Have Always Lived in the Castle), even I will attack me (Hangsaman).

Her writing doesn’t create the childish kind of fear, like “boo!” (Well, Hill House has some of that.) It’s more a grown up fear, like life is fraught with danger, and it can come from the most unlikely places. She doesn’t make me feel scared as much as, well, perhaps a little more prepared.

Such a unique read. Maybe too much so. I wouldn’t recommend it as a first Shirley Jackson, but for fans with an open mind, it is not to be missed.
Profile Image for Carla Remy.
820 reviews50 followers
July 19, 2022
(Oct 2017)
Initially, I took this as an oblique and poetic story about the beginnings of a writer, unable or unwilling to separate fiction from life. Natalie may not be entirely mentally stable either but it's hard to tell (or it's all the same thing). Then she goes to college, a girl's school (this book is from 1951), and the story takes a darker turn, and also becomes more lively. I thought it was very significant when, looking at the campus from afar, she imagines that she designed and built it as a series of dollhouses, and everyone she knows there are miniatures she can manipulate. The book becomes faster and even more surreal, and her imaginings might be taking over her life, and her friendship with a girl named Tony becomes even more meaningful.

(July 2022)
In the biography Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, it is asserted that Tony is an "imaginary friend," and Shirley Jackson called her "the demon in the mind."
Profile Image for Cláudia Azevedo.
262 reviews112 followers
October 3, 2021
Querida Shirley, isto não correu bem. Nem te reconheci, confesso. Foi por ser o teu segundo livro? Senti-me perdida no texto desde as tuas primeiras páginas, sempre à espera de um sentido para a ação que decorria e para cada personagem nova que surgia. E nada. Dei por mim a querer desistir desde cedo. Percebi o desnorte e o desmoronamento psicológico da tua Natalie, mas sei que podias ter feito muito melhor, como, de resto, sei que farás daqui para a frente. Por favor, nada temas e desculpa qualquer coisinha.
Profile Image for Gerhard.
1,036 reviews512 followers
June 10, 2021
“A vampire?” said Natalie. “I think it’s a werewolf. Look at its tail.”
“More likely one of those hidden personalities, I’d say,” said Tony.

Wow. In common parlance, that was a total mind-fuck.
Review to follow.
Profile Image for nostalgebraist.
Author 2 books417 followers
August 25, 2016
I've loved several of Shirley Jackson's other books but this time the magic spell didn't work on me, and when a spell fails, one is left with little to do but gawk at the occult paraphernalia involved in its casting, which are bound to ultimately seem at once baffling and quaint.

Some of Jackson's other books are expertly engineered spell-casting machines, the parameters of every pentacle chosen for optimal potency, no sigil lacking even the smallest significant curlicue. This one is more of a Rube Goldberg apparatus, an assembly of lots of striking little pieces that don't seem to add up to the sum of their parts, much less more. When I Googled around in an effort to figure out what on earth it all meant, I found . . . a piece on Slate about the experience of finishing the book and Googling around in an effort to figure out what on earth it all meant.

There were quite a few times in this book the protagonist's neuroses were so difficult for me to understand or relate to that I just wanted to say: oh, get over yourself. By contrast I never would have thought the same of other Jackson protagonists like Merricat or Eleanor. It's possible that the difference here is simply that I've personally experienced one kind of neurosis and not another. But it feels like more than that. The psychology in Hangsaman is as rambling and shaggy doggish as the plotting. Every time something new happened I wanted to annotate both the event itself and Natalie's response with a "?" as though they were chess moves.

I suppose there is a certain unity there: Jackson's books inspire these simple and composed sorts of responses that can be boiled down to individual symbols. When I started reading We Have Always Lived In The Castle, my first status update on Goodreads simply read


Whereas anything I might want to say about Hangsaman really just boils down to

Profile Image for Vanessa.
291 reviews725 followers
November 26, 2020
Hangsaman is very different from anything else I've read written by Shirley Jackson. It is generally described as a gothic novel but it does not own any of that genre's elements. It's more of a literary fiction book, a bildungsroman where you follow a young girl becoming a woman. The real element of "terror" is what a woman can go through her life, like sexual assaults, paralysing marriages and power dynamics perpetuated by men over women.
Hangsaman is divided into three parts: the first follows Natalie during a Sunday lunch, where she loses her innocence because of a monster, an older man, and we see her having difficulties separating reality from fantasy. Being a writer, she makes up dialogues and situations in her mind and she gest so immersed in them that she struggles to re-emerge into her real life.
The second part follows more of a dark academia route, also quite similar to Stoner in tone, where Natalie is at college studying liberal arts and gets intimate to her literature professor's wife, finding in them parallels of her parents, and at the same time not being able to bond with anyone else in particular.
In the third part, Natalie has become friends with Tony, another strange girl into tarots, who goes along with the main character's fantasies and becomes something obscure, threatening her own life, even though there's a plot twist and she . The ending is very much beautiful and realises Natalie's womanhood.
I think if I could tell someone everything, every single thing, inside my head, then I would be gone, and not existing any more, and I would sink away into that lovely nothing-space where you don't have to worry any more and no one every hears your or cares and you can say anything but of course you wouldn't be any more at all and you couldn't really do anything so it wouldn't matter what you did.

I've rarely related more to a character as I have related to Natalie: her thoughts and way of reflecting are very similar to mine or things I thought in the past and I was astonished by it, at the point where I was the one who could not separate who was Natalie and who were I. The prose is absolutely gorgeous and totally fits into literary fiction rather than gothic novels.
Do not at all expect something in the veins of We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House when you approach this book.
Profile Image for Wendi Lee.
Author 1 book467 followers
November 8, 2017
I've enjoyed Shirley Jackson's novels and short stories in the past, but Hangsaman just wasn't for me. I vacillated between confusion (what was happening? Who was real, and who was imagined?) and boredom. This is a novel of Natalie Waite, leaving her family home for college. What seems at first to be a place of new friendships and experiences soon turns out to be etched with loneliness and madness.

The blurb tells us that this novel was based on a real life disappearance of a college student in 1946. I found myself wanting to know more about the actual disappearance, rather than reading about Natalie. The prose is intentionally confusing, shifting POVs and scenes quickly, before you get a concrete sense of where you are and what's happening. Natalie sometimes questions what she sees and experiences as reality, and those are the most lucid fragments of this novel.
Profile Image for Obsidian.
2,708 reviews928 followers
October 18, 2017
Look, just know that this book is weird. It switches from first to third person sometimes too. And then you honestly don't know what's real or not real so you feel very confused at times. And you also may end up not liking anyone (I know I didn't) but may come away feeling sorry for Natalie (I did) and then just confused again. Just go read Moonlight Reader's REVIEW of this book since it will make way more sense than my mutterings about things below.

First, Natalie and her family are messed up. You find that out quickly when you realize her terrible father refers to himself as God everyday when they are having breakfast. Her mother is scared of being alone with her father (I know I would be too) and also scared of doing anything wrong. Natalie's brother, Bud is barely there and Natalie is at times doing her best to please her father, but also trying to help her mother though she has barely concealed contempt for her at times.

When Natalie starts having a back and forth conversation with a police detective you don't know if Jackson is trying to allude to something that is going to happen, or it's all just in Natalie's imagination.

When Natalie finally leaves for college, things get worse for her. She realizes that she has no friends, the other girls call her "Spooky" and you start to realize that what you are being told is not the whole truth as a reader. I started to pick up on things here and there and realized that Natalie was not realizing what was not being said a lot of times. When Natalie weirdly befriends one of her professor's wives, things actually seem a bit better, but you realize she has fallen into the mess of another family that she is finding even heard to extricate herself from.

I think the writing at times got a bit muddled (sorry Ms. Jackson) I assume that is intentional, since I have read some of Jackson's other works, and it seems as if she chooses each word with care. Some sentences last an entire paragraph. At times it made my eyes glaze over. And you start to realize that maybe Jackson is doing that on purpose since you start to realize that maybe Natalie is speaking some of this out of the way stuff out loud.

The flow was a bit off for me though. Due to the writing I mentioned above, it just made things grind to a halt at times. Since this is such a short book it should not have taken me that long to finish it, but it did. I think that after Natalie goes away to school things drag a bit until she meet's her professor's wife.

The setting of a young girl's home and than college experience was interesting. I just don't remember being alone at college. My brother was an upperclassman so everyone called me Little (insert my brother's name here) so I didn't even have my own identity, I was just his little sister even after he graduated. I will say that everyone treated me differently though. He was a jock, and though I was in high school, I decided to just focus on my grades and not play any sports. When the school's basketball coach found out I could play and how good I was apparently she was not happy.

I digress. The ending of the book gets increasingly dark and leaves the reader with a feeling that something worse is coming Natalie's way due to what all the signs are pointing to regarding her behavior.

I wouldn't really call this a Gothic book or even a straight up horror story though Goodreads classifies it as such. It's just an interesting look at the different stages in a woman's life. We have the young girl (naive and at times defiant) the newlywed (scared of what she did by giving up her own identity) and the married woman (realizing that being married was not the ultimate prize that she thought it would be). So you do get the maiden, the mother, and the crone in this one giving a cautionary tale about what it means to be a woman.
Profile Image for Susan.
2,602 reviews599 followers
June 2, 2022
Published in 1951, this is Shirley Jackson’s second novel. In her first, “The Road Through the Wall,” Jackson looked to her childhood for inspiration. In this, her second, she centres on a Bennington like liberal arts school, such as the one her husband worked at. Having read a couple of biographies of Shirley Jackson, there is obviously much about both this first novels which are based upon her own experiences. There are also many hints of her future style, with similar themes running through her work, including isolation and an undercurrent of threat or violence.

Natalie Waite lives with her parents and brother (as Jackson did herself). Jackson skilfully subverts the family dynamic and some of the scenes involving her father’s lectures, or mother’s neediness, are difficult to read and yet, often, darkly funny. Something very dark happens to Natalie before she goes to college, but, as with so much in this novel, you are unsure of the true facts.

At college, Natalie fails to fit in and is viewed as odd and strange. Isolated and alone, she befriends the young wife of her English teacher. Previously a student, Elizabeth Langdon drinks too much and dislikes her husband’s students visiting and openly flirting with him. Here, you can really feel Jackson’s pen aiming at her husband. The two students, Vicki and Anne, are truly vicious and cause the new Mrs Langdon a great deal of unhappiness. Meanwhile, both her husband, and Natalie’s father, demonstrate how much the men in Natalie’s life like to talk at her, but refuse, stubbornly, to hear what she is saying.

While Jackson lived at Bennington, it is said she was partially inspired by the story of Paula Jean Weldens disappearance in 1946 and also wrote a story linked to this, “The Missing Girl,” which I would like to read, to compare. There is also a true crime book about the case available: “Clueless in New England: the unsolved disappearances of Paula Welden, Connie Smith and Katherine Hull”, by Michael C. Dooling.

As events in this novel escalate, things go missing from the girls dorm rooms, and Natalie meets a new friend, the rather spooky, Tony. However, it is difficult to know what is real and what is imagined, as you have a true sense of impending doom. This may not be the best of Jackson’s novels, but it is certainly worth reading.

Update: On my re-read of this novel, I also read the short story, 'The Missing Girl,' and definitely recommend reading them together. They have the same sense of isolation which Jackson portrayed so well.
Profile Image for Robert.
Author 32 books118 followers
August 23, 2022
Hangsaman, originally published in 1951, has always been my favorite of Shirley Jackson's early novels. It's a strange sort of psychological study-cum-bildungsroman that has always been marketed as a suspense novel—which it really isn't. Shirley Jackson has always been a hard to classify writer, and that's likely one of the reasons I love her. She's Her Own Thing, as so many of the best things in life happen to be. Hangsaman is an uneven book, but this somehow this works to its advantage in a weird way—at times its more unwieldy passages feel right in tune with the consciousness of its troubled protagonist. The story concerns a young girl named Natalie Waite, a smart loner type who has always been under the thumb of her well-meaning but pompous, overbearing college professor father (Jackson was a master at limning windbags like him – see also Dr. Wright in The Bird's Nest). After suffering a disturbing incident at a cocktail party at her parents' house, Natalie goes off to a small private college, where she slowly begins to unravel. That sounds like a pretty basic plot, but the book is largely an internal affair. As we are constantly privy to Natalie's often half-mad musings, the story eventually develops an eerie, surreal dimension. The narrative goes especially off-kilter in the final third: like Natalie, we are often in doubt as to what is reality and what is fantasy, what is dream or nightmare; in fact, a major character introduced in this section may or may not even be real (as her fans know, Jackson consistently played with and questioned the nature of reality in her fiction). Hangsaman is an intense book that requires perhaps a bit of patience, but for the right reader it's a fascinating, thought provoking little mind trip. Extra bonus points for Francine Prose's thoughtful, engaging forward in this new edition from Penguin Books.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 995 reviews

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.