The Hanging Woods

The Hanging Woods

by Scott Loring Sanders

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What Walter reads that day changes him. Not in any way someone would really notice. He still goes to school, hangs out with his friends Jimmy and Mothball, and tries to avoid the Troll, the town recluse. But something in him has changed. It's as if he can feel a part of him growing—the part that can stand by and watch a house burn down or the life flow out of a fox, without doing anything to stop either. He knows he could—should—do something to help. But some part of him keeps him glued in place, watching with fascination and curiosity. Maybe it would have been better if Walter had never found out the things he did. Maybe he didn't really want to know. But then again, maybe he did. Richly atmospheric, The Hanging Woods is at times disturbing, but it is always riveting. It's a tale of deception, delusion, and the dark places a troubled mind can go.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780547528311
Publisher: HMH Books
Publication date: 03/21/2008
Sold by: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 850,741
File size: 209 KB
Age Range: 12 - 18 Years

About the Author

Scott Loring Sanders's work has been published in both literary magazines and larger publications, including Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. His awards and honors include a writer-in-residency fellowship from the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France; a fiction award from The Atlantic Monthly; a fellowship from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts; and a Pushcart Prize nomination. He was also a semi-finalist for the James Jones First Novel fellowship and received nominations for Harcourt's Best New American Voices in 2004 and 2005. He lives in Virginia, where he writes and teaches writing.

Read an Excerpt

In 1975, when I was thirteen, I killed a fox. It happened a few weeks after I’d snuck into my mother’s room and read her diary. That diary told me a lot of things that I didn’t want to know. Or maybe I did want to know them. I can’t say for sure. But what I can say for sure is that killing the fox wasn’t pretty. And it wasn’t an accident.

I beat it over the head with a piece of stiff hickory about as long but not quite as thick as a baseball bat. I’m sure if my grandfather’s .22 had been available, I’d have had an easier go of it.

Beating the fox was my first experience with death. I mean real death. Death by my own hands. I’m not talking about catching a catfish out of the Tallapoosa, throwing it on the bank, and watching as its pulsing mouth gasped for air. It wasn’t the same as that. Killing the fox was brutal. I didn’t enjoy it, exactly, though in a strange way it did fascinate me.
My grandfather, Papa, had taught me the basics of trapping the winter before. The first thing I ever saw caught was a big female raccoon. I actually heard it before I saw it. When we approached the set, near a small creek in a dense wood of live oaks and sycamores, the chain of the trap rattled through the morning air as the coon scooted from side to side. The steel jaws clamped her front right paw, and she hissed when she saw us. In the silt, on the edge of the creek, her little handprints overlapped one another as she stomped around, trying to free herself. The black band on her face couldn’t hide the fear and hatred in her eyes. Papa walked up to the coon as casually as if he were lighting his pipe. He stuck the barrel about an inch from her head and fired. One shot and the coon was dead.

“You gotta be humane, Walter,” he said as he picked her up, squeezing the release prongs, freeing her leg. “They should suffer as little as possible. You got it?”

“Yes, sir,” I said, “but without a gun it’s going to be hard.”

He dropped the coon into the oversize wicker rucksack resting on his back, then reset the double-spring trap. “Your mama don’t want you out here with a gun yet. You know how she worries. In a few years, maybe, but not yet.”

“But how am I gonna do it?”

“You’re gonna use a stick and hit it over the head,” he said in his usual matter-of-fact way. “That’s the way I learned when I was a boy, and you’ll do the same. It ain’t an easy thing to do, but it’s important. With a stick you feel the life escape the animal’s body, run up through the wood, and then into your hands and arms. It’s a might troubling, but necessary.”

“But why?” I asked. “Seems like it’d be easier with a gun.”

“Because you’ll respect the animals in these woods, that’s why. Get an idea of how flimsy life is. There ain’t no feeling with a gun. You pull the trigger and it’s over. That’s the easy way, and you gotta learn the hard way, really feel it with your hands, so you can appreciate the easy way. Got me?”

“Yes, sir,” I said, “but I’d still rather use a gun.”

After that first season of instruction, Papa told me I’d be ready to go out on my own the following year. I waited impatiently through the spring, summer, and fall, excited about the prospects of trapping solo. When the time finally came, Papa set me up with a half dozen Victor Oneida double-spring leg holds and let me loose.

Papa lived in a rundown house in the country, not much more than a shack really, on the other side of the Tallapoosa River, several miles from Woodley. During the trapping season, Mom dropped me off after school on Fridays and picked me up on Sundays. I liked spending time with Papa on weekends because he never bothered me or made fun of me. I felt at ease around him; it was definitely better than having to stay at home with my parents. Especially my father.

Every weekend, as soon as Mom dropped me off, I would grab the traps that hung on sixteen-penny nails in his toolshed and take off running through the woods. I placed sets near the creek for coon, and a couple in the field for fox. Since it was winter and the sun set early, I had to hustle. Alabama winters weren’t all that frigid compared to most of the country’s, but I still didn’t want to get caught in the woods after dark. Things sometimes got eerie out there.

After several weekends went by and I hadn’t caught a thing, I found that trapping wasn’t as easy as Papa had made it look. But I stayed optimistic. On that third Saturday morning, I sprang out of bed feeling confident, but by the end of my round of checking traps, I had been shut out once again.

“Usually when you think it ain’t never gonna happen is when it does,” said Papa as I walked into the kitchen, miserable and dejected after my latest effort. He satt on a wobbly chair, his long legs stretched out in front of him, rubbing little circles into his glasses with a bandanna.

“Then I guess it’s gonna happen real soon,” I said, “because right now I don’t think I’ll ever catch a thing.”

“It’ll happen,” he said with a smile. “Just keep at it. A weasel don’t always catch a chicken the first time it enters a henhouse.”

When I awoke the following morning, rain bounced off the tin roof, tapping beats like a child on a snare drum. I pulled on my flannel jacket, laced up my boots, and grabbed the heavy walking stick Papa had fashioned for me. He’d whittled off all the bark and carved my initials at the top. Smooth and sleek, the stick felt comfortable in my hands, as if it belonged there, as if it had grown in the woods all those years just for me. As nice a fit as it was, all I wanted to do was crawl back into bed, sleep, and wait for the smell of frying eggs and sausage. But Papa would never allow it. Checking the traps first thing, no matter how I felt or how nasty the weather, was his strictest rule. So I headed out, still eager despite the rain and cold.

I had trouble seeing more than a few feet in front of me as I made my way through the fog. My eyes still hung heavy with sleep. The morning light barely seeped through the loblolly pines that stood tall and thin all around. A cold, wet grayness surrounded me, and I started shivering within five minutes of being exposed to the chilly air.

I jogged to the first set in order to stay warm. It held nothing, but I wasn’t surprised; I had gotten used to it by then. I walked beside the creek, which now rushed along, white and foamy from the heavy rainfall. Leaves and branches rolled and tumbled through the water as they journeyed to meet up with the larger body of the Tallapoosa. The rest of the coon sets were also empty, so I headed to the edge of the field where I had a fox set. The trap lay on the far side of an old rock wall that had once been used as a field divider. I climbed up and over the fallen stones to get to it, nearly slipping on a slick patch of moss growing on the rocks.

The wet leaves softened my steps, so as I approached the trap, I saw the animal before it saw me. A large gray fox, about the size of a small German shepherd, lay on its stomach, its whitish gray coat matted and soaked from the pelting rain. It had little pup tents for ears, and its black snout rested on the moist, rotting leaves. I took a step forward. As I did so, the fox immediately sprang to its feet and yipped with such vigor that chills shot through my body. I’d never heard anything like it in my life; it was worse than a fork raking across a chalkboard.

I didn’t know what to do, so I did the only thing that seemed natural. I panicked. I gripped my walking stick tightly, which turned my red hands white. The fox hobbled around as best it could, pacing back and forth, though the few feet of chain didn’t allow for much mobility. The hackle of its orange neck stood stiff and upright.

The fox’s eyes locked on me and never strayed. The yipping continued, and I felt an overwhelming urge to let it go, but I saw no way of doing it. In order to open the jaws of the trap, I’d have to step on the release prongs, and there was no way to do that without being attacked. I thought maybe I should run back to the house and get Papa to come with his .22, but I didn’t want him to think I was a coward.

The moment I’d been dreaming of had come, and I realized it had turned into a nightmare. One part of me kept saying to let it go. The fox hadn’t done anything to anyone; the only thing it had done wrong was to have the bad luck of stepping into my trap. But the other part of me, the stronger part, said that I had to kill it. And I always seemed to listen to my stronger part.

I grabbed my stick tighter still, as though preparing to swing for the fence. I took a couple of steps forward, which sent the fox into a fury. The fox kept attempting to walk backwards, trying to break free, but its captured leg prevented it from going more than a foot or two. I’d secured the trap by twisting thin baling wire around the steel trap chain and then wrapping the other end of the wire around the trunk of a pine sapling. The young tree bent and shook as the fox tugged; tiny drops of water flew from its needles, but the trap held fast.

When I got within a few feet of the fox, it pulled as far away from me as it could. I raised the hickory over my head and swung with all my might. The stick struck the ground, jolting my frozen hands. While I had been in midswing, the fox had leaped to the side. Just after it jumped, however, part of the chain somehow wrapped around the exposed root of a large loblolly, now making the fox immobile. I raised the stick again and swung. I heard the thud of the heavy wood connect with the fox’s skull the same instant that I felt it. Its life seemed to flow through the hickory and into my body, just as Papa had said it would.

A heavy gasp exhaled from deep within the fox’s chest. The fox instantly dropped to the ground, landing on its stomach, its legs splayed out spread- eagle style. Its tail stood straight up in the air, so I pulled back and smashed its skull again, and then again, thinking it was probably still alive. After the third blow, the tail gradually dropped to the ground, almost in slow motion, like the black-and-white barrier at a railroad crossing. It looked beautiful. Hardly any blood leaked from the head, and only a trickle seeped from its mouth. Its tongue stuck out over the side of the ridged black jowls, and if not for that, the fox would have looked asleep instead of dead.

I poked its ribs with my stick a couple of times. I still wasn’t completely convinced that it wouldn’t wake up and attack. After a few moments of prodding, when it didn’t stir, I finally opened the trap, picked the fox up—the soft fur and warm body comforting my numb hands—and placed it in Papa’s rucksack. I then slung the pack over my shoulder.
The rain had stopped and the sun had peeked out from a window in the clouds by the time I made my way out of the woods. The warmth of the rays thawed my frozen skin. My clothes felt five pounds heavier from the rain, and the fox in the rucksack must have weighed at least twenty more. I panted and felt exhausted as I neared the skinning table that Papa kept set up in the backyard during the season. He stood on the deck filling his bird feeder, which was screwed into the trunk of a magnolia. The tree’s glossy leaves hung over the deck, giving shade in the summer and fat white blossoms in the late spring.

“How’d you make out?” “I got a fox,” I said through a forced grin. “A gray.” “Get out of town, boy. Did you really?” “Yes, sir, I really did.” “Well, hot damn, son, pull her out and let’s take a look,” he said, climbing down the steps to meet me.

“She” actually turned out to be a “he,” which was easy enough to figure out when Papa helped me skin it. He pulled the pelt over a wire stretcher when we finished, but I didn’t really pay attention to the process. He talked and rattled on and seemed so excited about the whole thing that he never looked at me. I automatically nodded when he asked me something, but my mind and thoughts had flown far away from that pelt on the skinning table. I couldn’t think about anything except the feeling that had shot up through my arms and into my brain, settling there with a dull buzz. The new knowledge— that I possessed the power to kill—overwhelmed me.

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Hanging Woods 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 15 reviews.
JokerGal87 More than 1 year ago
OK, I'll admit, I like weird books, but I seriously think this book was mismarketed--it should have been an adult book. I mean, the kid's a psychopath. It scared me SO BAD, and I'm not easily scared--one of my favorite fictional characters is the Joker from the new Batman movie, to give you an idea. If you're an adult and you like grisly murder stories like this, by all means, read it, but if you're a teen, DO NOT READ THIS BOOK. Yeah, it was marketed towards Young Adult, but that doesn't mean it's really for that age group. The kid was 13, yeah, but not many 13-year-olds are this crazy.
TeensReadToo More than 1 year ago
You know that feeling you get when you pass a particularly horrific accident? It's not that you want someone to be hurt, but you can't help slowing down to look. That's how I felt as I began reading this book.

The year is 1975, shortly after the end of the Vietnam War. Times are tough. Tempers flare and the stress level is high. There are many historical elements that firmly root this story in this time period, yet the events and emotions in this story are not relegated to the 70's. Knowing this human condition exists today gives it even more impact.

Scott Loring Sanders deftly places the reader into the mind of thirteen-year-old Walter. Through Walter, the reader will experience the killing of a fox up close and personal. I could feel the fear and panic of the fox as he struggled against the trap. I felt the life energy of that fox dissipate into nothing through the handle of the stick used to beat him senseless, and I felt both Walter's revulsion and thrill over his first kill. His grandfather had insisted on this savage method. He told Walter, " gotta learn the hard way, really feel it with your hands, so you can appreciate the easy way."

This first chapter sets the tone of the book. Disturbing, you say? Absolutely. Fascinating? Positively! I read on, I'll admit, with some trepidation, as a reader who neither hunts, nor appreciates the feeling of satisfaction that hunters must feel when taking their prize, a foreigner to this male world of violence and dominance.

Meet Walter's friends. Jimmy is the leader who's rough around the edges, chiseled and hardened at the hands of his abusive, alcoholic father. Mothball's the chubby oddball who aims to become famous by beheading a chicken in just the right way so that he, Mothball, can keep it alive for over eighteen months and, therefore, beat the Guinness Book record. As you might imagine, he's subjected to more than his share of pranks and jokes, which makes him even more determined to succeed.

The boys walk the town in the wee hours of the morning as they pull off ever-escalating pranks on the local townspeople. To prove to one another that they aren't chicken, the risk and fear factors are taken up a notch each night. They venture further toward the Hanging Woods, Niggertown, and the Troll, a homeless Vietnam War veteran. When Troll sees them, they race home, adrenaline pumping, fear lighting a fire beneath their feet. But neither Jimmy nor Mothball knows Walter's secret, that Troll knows him. He called him by name!

The temperament of a thirteen-year-old around his parents is, by design, often volatile and argumentative. These are the times that teens must decide for themselves who they are and who they want to be. They examine the values their parents have tried to teach and compare them with the values their parents have shown. They are bombarded with the voices and opinions of their peers and walk a tightrope between what they are coming to believe about the world, and what they have been taught to believe. Imagine the turmoil Walter must feel when his safety net is snatched away the day he reads the secrets in his mother's diary. Walter's interpretation of those events results in his slow unraveling. The shift in the foundation of his world leaves Walter feeling unable to do anything more than stand by and let the darkness inside take over....

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emma_mc on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Terrible. Completely awful. Writing? Sucked. Overly detailed about SETTING, of all things. And it was juvenile writing. Believable? Hardly. It was too boring and dumb to even get into. I felt so far removed I could barely begin to care about the characters OR the plot line for that matter. But wait, there really wasn't a plot line! Ugh! The last twenty pages were alright. But not great. I feel like the author threw all of the plot and its twists in at the last minute. Anyway, don't waste your time like I did on this one people.
jentifer on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I picked this up because the cover and the blurbs made it seem like a "Stand by Me" sort of novel. Set in the 1970s in a small, struggling working class town, this is the story of 3 teen boys who are uneasy with themselves and with each other. Trust is a major theme in this book - though lifelong friends, the three main characters don't trust each other at all. They make mention of John Knowles "A Seperate Peace" and there are some interesting parallels. The characters don't grab you, and the story is very plodding for the first 3/4 of the book. Everyone is mildly to stronly racist, but little to no moral judgement attached. The only bright spot is a headless turkey that one character is trying to keep alive in order to get into the Guinness Book of World Records. The ending is a "gotcha" one, but I found it not that shocking coming from such an unreliable narrator. I wouldn't booktalk it, but I may shelftalk it if I had a teen who was into murder mysteries and wanted something that was quick and easy.
greenARE777 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
It was an ok book. It had language not recommended for younger children. It talked about violence, racism, and sex, but I thought it was fairly well written.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
David_Connell More than 1 year ago
I picked this up in the bargain bin for my grandmother, she grew up in the south so the book jacket made it sound perfect. She read it and said it was incredibly racist. She was actually upset, so I read it to see if there was any truth to her statements. It didn't seem that racist to me, but it was poorly written. I ended up having to go to the doctor for the migraines. BUT there's a silver lining to everything. I had a broken leg on my refrigerator in my garage and this levels it perfectly! It would have cost me at least $10 to actually fix it, so I actually saved money.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am not normally one to read a book in a short peroid of time, but I couldn't put this book down. Even though it is rated for young adult, I chose to buy it when I read a write a story on the author. I am in my late forties and very much enjoyed this book. I am looking forward to his next book. I highly recommend reading The Hanging Woods. The twist at the end is well worth it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
At first the first chapter didn't catch my attnention but soon after I got drawn to the book and I didn't put it down until I was finished. One of the best books i've read in a long time.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Although this book is marketed as a young adult fiction it is by far the best book I have read this year and I am in my mid 40's. I read a lot, a book every few days, but this one stands out. It has action, intrigue and a great plot with twist that kept me reading till I finished it in one setting. I highly recommend it to any and all.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is what A Book should be. A real page turner and better yet, after reading this book, YOU WILL REMEMBER IT. Surely the next novel by Scott Loring Sanders will be a tough act to follow.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Definitely a page turner. The fox scene did bother me but it was the start of the mental darkness that ultimately takes over. Fascinating read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you like this kind of gruesome stuff then you will love this book I picked this book for a book report and i got an A
PK800 More than 1 year ago
I stayed up past 2:30 in the morning to finish this book. It made me very uncomfortable in spots, which speaks to its ability to involve me completely in the characters and story. Ultimately, it paid off. This was really meant for teen readers? Jim Thompson fans, no doubt. Hearty souls, the best kind. The book and its writer trust young readers to have strength and perspective. Adults will enjoy this too. The Hanging Woods will stay with me.