You might never find your way back

Dear Shirley,

Shirley JacksonNatalie Waite is seventeen, she is stuck at home with her family, her mother is a neurotic (rather desperate) housewife, and her father is the worst kind of fool: a writer who thinks he is a genius. When we meet Natalie, she is about to leave for college. But, for now, her mind is the only place where she can truly have a room of her own.

And what a splendidly odd mind she has! “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. For the past two years – since, in fact, she had turned around suddenly one bright morning and seen from the corner of her eye a person called Natalie, existing, charted, inescapably located on a spot of ground, favored with sense and feet and a bright-red sweater, and most obscurely alive – she had lived completely by herself, allowing not even her father access to the farther places of her mind.”

While she holds a benign dialogue with her parents, our Natalie is also carrying on a running conversation in her mind, where she is being interrogated by a detective who has accused her of murdering her father. The effect is sharp and disturbingly funny, and this is just a measure of your genius and your skill.

A highlight, for me, is your use of free indirect discourse, leading us to move back and forth between the outside and the inside of Natalie’s mind; from the so-called reality around her to the depths of her imagination, and then back, seamlessly – so that, by the end of the book, these two realms will have collapsed into each other, leaving us (and our Natalie) more or less uncapable of knowing what is real and what is not.

Natalie’s relationship with her father is troubled (not to say rather toxic), as he forces her to write journal-like entries that he then comments on and corrects (he seems to be particularly drawn to the passages about him). There was a point in Natalie, only dimly realised by herself and probably entirely a function of her age, where obedience ended and control began; after this point was reached and passed, Natalie became a solitary functioning individual, capable of ascertaining her own believable possibilities.”

There will be an incident at one of her father’s garden parties, where Natalie will be led into the woods and raped by one of his ‘friends’. The word ‘rape’ will never be mentioned, and you will give us no further details about the incident – repressing it from the book, as much as Natalie is trying to repress it from her memory.Nothing happened,” she chanted, “nothing happened, nothing happened, nothing happened, nothing happened.”

And, as every truly repressed trauma, this incident will subtly influence and colour everything that will follow. As every truly repressed trauma, we will not notice it until the end – we may never notice it at all. And I even knew that you thought I was worried about that terrible thing, but of course – I promise you this, I really do – I don’t think about it at all, ever, because both of us know that it never happened, did it? And it was some horrible dream that caught up with us both. We don’t have to worry about things like that, you remember we decided we didn’t have to worry.”

As reality is forcibly clothed as a dream, dreams will start to assume a reality of their own. And Natalie will retreat further and further into this room of her own.

It will begin and end with a trip to the woods. At the garden party, Natalie already knows this: The danger is here, in here, just as they stepped inside and were lost in the darkness.” As with another of my favourite 20th-century authors, Barbara Comyns, you have a gift for conveying different forms of violence that exist within domesticity. The danger is here.”

Natalie will enter college, only to be faced with other subtle ways by which such domesticity (and the patriarchal logic it comprises) is gladly enforced by all involved (male and female). At college, as much as at home, Natalie will find herself surrounded by cliques, mediocre people, and hypocrites: men in position of power who treat women as extensions of their ego; and women who are eager and happy enough to be treated as such.

Natalie is snubbed by all girls – except, of course, by the slightly neurotic (and possibly imaginary) ones. After a few weeks at college, our Natalie will befriend her soulmate: Tony. This new friend of hers is mysterious, daring, elusive, and fascinating. She may be Natalie’s double. She may be her lover. She may be a gift from the gods, a ghost, a guardian angel – or a product of Natalie’s wild imagination: “The danger is here, in here.” There is something odd about Tony.

And, as I said, it will begin and end with a trip to the woods. “Will you come somewhere with me?”, Tony will entice Natalie with her soft voice, “It’s a long way.” But, this time, the woods may be growing from the inside out. We will never quite know. Together with Natalie, we will cross through the woods, and the woods will refuse to be mapped. “It’s a long way.” Reality is a moveable territory, it shifts, its borders eventually collapse into one another. “You might never find your way back.”

Natalie may never find her way back from the room of her own, either – and the novel leaves it open, whether that should be seem as something positive or not. We know that our heroine’s life is claustrophobic, both at home and at college. The pressure to conform to other people’s fantasies is just too great – particularly, when those people are figures of authority. Most disturbing, though, is the fact that Natalie’s mind – this splendid room of her own, to where she is gradually retreating further and further – may also be a locked room. This book is a Bildungsroman where the heroine’s coming of age is also a feature of her mental disintegration – and here, I feel, lies the horror element of the story.

What does the title of the book even mean? Who is the Hangsaman the man who does the hanging, or the one who is being hanged? The victim or the executioner? We are initially made to think of The Hanged Man, a tarot card that may or may not mean the condition of being suspended in time – in waiting, such as our Natalie Waite, suspended between dream and reality, life and death, control and freedom.

Another clue to the title comes from the book’s epigraph, taken from a 15th century ballad, The Gallows Tree (also known as The Maid Freed from the Gallows), where a girl who is about to be hanged pleads with the hangman to wait until someone comes to save her: “Slack your rope, Hangsaman, / Slack it for a while/ I think I see my true love comin’, / Comin’ many a mile”.

Natalie’s one true love – the only being with whom she is able to connect – may only be a product of her imagination – and this reads like a rather grim prospect of salvation (or lack thereof). “Remember, Natalie”, reads one of her father’s letters, “your enemies will always come from the same place your friends do.” The hangman, the hanged man; father, daughter; Tony, Natalie; friends, enemies; dreams, reality – the doubles will eventually collapse into each other.

Yours truly,

J.


Fairfield Porter. The Mirror. 1966
Fairfield Porter. The Mirror. 1966

 


““Imagine,” Tony said softly once, “imagine that we live here, just halfway down that block. That house with the wide porch is very well known to us; we live there. You sweep the porch and I dust the living room just inside. We know so well what the house looks like that we go in there by instinct without even looking at it, and we are oddly comfortable in any other house which resembles it. And now we are going past our stop. As far as this point, the bus route is familiar to us, and we know without seeing them every corner and almost every person who gets on and off daily, and every street sign and every store—back there, as a matter of fact, was our grocery, where one or the other of us shops every day. Beyond this corner, everything is wilderness.”

“That’s why it’s so bad to be carried past your stop,” Natalie said. “You might never find your way back—you’re in someone else’s territory, places familiar to the person who gets off at the next stop. Their grocery stores.”

“We’re going much farther today, though,” Tony said.” – Hangsaman, by Shirley Jackson

*

“Perhaps tomorrow I shall pick up one of the houses, any one, and, holding it gently in one hand, pull it carefully apart with my other hand, 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, and then, sweeping out the furniture inside, down the right wall of the house, removing it with care and not touching the second floor, which should remain intact even after the first floor is entirely gone. 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 a more concealed room, crushing one another and stumbling and pulling frantically, slamming doors behind them while my strong fingers pull each door softly off its hinges and pull the walls apart and lift out the windows intact and take out carefully the tiny beds and chairs; and finally they will be all together like seeds in a pomegranate, in one tiny room, hardly breathing, some of them fainting, some crying, and all wedged in together looking in the direction from which I am coming, and then, when I take the door off with sure careful fingers, there they all will be, packed inside and crushed back against the wall, and I shall eat the room in one mouthful, chewing ruthlessly on the boards and the small sweet bones.” – Hangsaman, by Shirley Jackson


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