Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay might have been published in 1967, but it is Victorian from head to toe. Several times while reading it, Ichecked the publication date just to make sure it was written in the 60s. Everything about the novel, including the language and what the author chooses to describe (as well as what she chooses to leave out) speaks of a gentler, more pastoral time. Which is what makes this classic horror novel a must-read for those who love historical fiction.
The story takes place on a summer day in Australia, when the students of Appleyard College for Young Ladies and their chaperones take a holiday to a local site of interest: Hanging Rock. Things go as planned until a small group of them take off for a stroll and are never heard from again. This tragedy leads to a series of others, and like toppling dominoes, the pastoral life at the college falls apart.
Hanging Rock might be a horror novel, but unlike The Little Stranger, it is the gentlest horror I’ve ever read. Everything is couched in old-world language. Words like ‘suicide’ aren’t mentioned. Instead, the author refers to ‘tragedies.’ Even the most colorful of the characters, a groomsman with mermaid tattoos across his arms, speaks deferentially. When I read this, all I could think about was all the pain the students were in after their friends went missing, yet how everyone was bound tight as a corset by their Victorian-era manners. This is a book that deserves a careful read because while the surface of things looks calm, underneath is tumultuous.
The author’s descriptions are top-notch. She lets the reader know that, despite the fancy manners and formal dress, these people life in a rough place, the Outback. The students and teachers are neat, tidy, and prim, while nature is anything but. And I think that’s what Hanging Rock itself is all about. It’s a hulking mass of stone, dangerous and full of wildlife. It’s no surprise that a tragedy happened there. Of all the classic literature conflicts, this one is humankind versus nature.
So while Picnic at Hanging Rock isn’t a ghoulish read, I did find it unsettling. It’s a mystery that will never be solved. Reading this novel is like reading a bit of sad history, but even a week later, the story haunts me.
Have you read this book or seen the movie? Let me know in the comments what you thought.