If you’re a horror person like me, Nick Antosca’s The Hangman’s Ritual draws you in with a cover blurb in which Brian Evenson likens the novel to Oldboy and the Saw-esque slasher The Collector. While that’s a beautiful quote and probably helps move books, it’s a bit of a disservice to the novella.
This is the second longer work I’ve read from this author where familiar setups and narrative tropes are reconfigured and used to great effect. In The Obese it was the Romero-ian siege story, stretched and molded into a delivery system for some very modern, very specific social commentary, which is kind of why the zombie story was invented, even if most of the folks working in the genre seem to have gotten away from that. In The Hangman’s Ritual we begin with the setup made familiar in Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy, a man held captive for an indefinite time in a secret prison, but invert it by focusing on a different character: the warden.
Our protagonist, Casper, a low level employee at a Hedge Fund (a business whose workings we’ll have about as much of a grasp on as our protag seems to, i.e. basically none) who is forced, through tragic circumstances, to change positions at the company, working as the concierge at his boss’s private “Hotel.” It’s the modern notion of being a slave to your job taken to its extreme, and the fact that Casper, a depressed alcoholic who is still admirably protective of his young son, seems to be a tiny bit duller than the reader only helps to heighten the tragedy and tension.
Two chapters in, it becomes clear that we can drop the Oldboy comparisons, apparent that Antosca is going to tell his own twisty-mind bender of a story. The Manhattan setting, instantly recognizable/believable for anyone that’s ever lived in NY or the surrounding area, helps to ground the story even as it climbs to its most allegorical heights (a villain with an office filled preserved insects in Lucite, a character’s solitary-confinement induced hallucinations that include a man made of feces).
Being a novella, it’s a quick read but there are plenty of novellas that don’t cover quite the same amount of ground that The Hangman’s Ritual does. Both the narrative and thematic content feels dense, but still it moves like lightning, easily finished in a day. Like any good mystery there are feints, reveals and reversals, some of which you might see coming but still have difficulty with until the end sets everything (well, everything narrative) in place for you.
Like its author, The Hangman’s Ritual is a book that skirts the borderlines of a few genres (horror, mystery, crime, all with a decided literary bend) but should appeal to fans of any of them. It seems like the kind of book destined for a film adaptation, one that might gloss over some of the complexities. Check it out now so you can have smug conversations with your friends that don’t read later. Highly recommended.