“The Hanging Stranger” was published in Science Fiction Adventure in December 1953. It is currently most easily available in the third volume of The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick (now known as Second Variety and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick). It can be found on pp. 13–25 in that Second Variety version.
Ed Loyce is returning to his business, a television repair store, after working all day fixing the foundation of his house. When he enters town (Pikesville) he sees something strange hanging from a lamppost. On closer inspection he finds that it is a dead body.
Loyce talks to his employees about the horrific discovery he made. Don Fergusson insists that there must be a good reason for it being there, some sort of public service announcement. Jack Potter confessed he saw it before but was confused by Loyce thought there was anything wrong with it begin there. Loyce looks at the man again and realizes he is from outside the town. As Loyce becomes more flustered by the indifference of the other members of the town to the hanging body, a crowd gathers. As Loyce begins yelling for the crowd to do something about the body, police arrive to break up the gathering.
During questioning, Loyce tells the police he was working underground all day. The police tell him that this explains why he was acting strange. He missed the explanation for the hanging body. After the questioning, Loyce remains suspicious. The men he talked to were not local police that he know and they never gave him an explanation for the body. Loyce ducks away from the public through the hardware store. He tries to get away from an undefined malevolent force, evading the twin symbols of authority of the police station and City Hall. Beyond City Hall he sees a solid dark vortex with a dense swarm of things coming out of it.
Loyce sees that the creatures coming from the dark vortex are aliens, with insect-like wings. He sees some of them go into City Hall. The people of the town went on with their daily life, but they seems to all have had their consciousness taken over by the invading aliens. On a bus, Loyce watches the actions of the other passengers. One observes him carefully with alert eyes while pretending to read a book. When an old man gets on the bus, sits across from Loyce and passes something to the other, Loyce escapes the bus by using the emergency escape door. The bus passengers follow him. The man with the book tries to confront him directly. Loyce beats the man and escapes.
Loyce goes to his house to see his wife Janet. He tries to explain the situation to her and insists of leaving town immediately with her and the twins, Jim and Tommy. A creature in vague form of Jimmy attacks Loyce. After a struggle, Loyce kills it with a kitchen knife. After this conflict he notices an alien presence in his mind. He decides to leave town by foot, keeping Janet and Tommy behind.
Loyce crawled almost ten miles to avoid being seen. His clothing is shredded and he is dirty and injured, but he got out of the Pikesville. He tries to tell a gas station attendant what has happened in the town. He asks to be taken to Oak Grove.
Loyce is being asked questions by the Commissioner, who is recording the conversation. The Commissioner says he believes Loyce. Loyce provides his theory of what is going on. The creatures have invaded the town, working first from the highest levels of authority. What is actually being played out in Pikesville is an old conflict of Biblical significance. But he still cannot explain why the body was hanged from the lamppost. The Commissioner suggests that it was bait, to make Loyce—or others who avoided being controlled—stand out. The Commissioner says that it will all make sense soon and Loyce is taken away by police men.
Clarence Mason leaves the vault of the Oak Grove Merchant’s Bank and is shocked to find that he seems to be the only one who notices that there is a body hanging from a telephone pole.
I read “The Hanging Stranger” as thinly veiled political allegory. It is not hard to see but we can through the story again, highlighting a few key moments. Ed Loyce leaves for his office and comes across a monstrous crime. When Dick was writing this, lynchings were still common in the United States and were likely presented with the same indifference. We do not need lynchings today to notice people responding to crimes the same way the people of Pikeville responded to the man hanging from the lamppost. Notice with me that the man hanging from the post is an outsider. When Loyce ends up on another lamppost, it is again as an outsider. When the president orders a drone strike on a family or a bank forecloses on a poor family, only a handful of us respond with the horror of Ed Loyce. Most people seem to assume that these horrors are just a normal part of life, totally reasonable within the system. As the people of Pikesville point out Loyce must be either drunk or sick to suggest otherwise. The public display of the enemies of the state, from a historical perspective, is not abnormal anyway. It is only modern cultures that did away with that, even as they sustain prisons and executions. As Loyce pretends to accept the hanging body he uses the language that is all too common among apologists for state violence. “I thought something had happened. You know, something like that Ku Klux Klan. Some kind of violence. Communists or Fascists taking over. [. . .] I’m glad to know it’s on the level.” (16) As long as something, no matter how vile, is “on the level” most people will accept it.
We are not given any explanation of what is going on that is authoritative. The closest we get to an explanation is that these Lovecraftian horrors have taken over the leadership of the town before, in one massive occupation, took over the people of the town. At one point Loyce—while trying to avoid the police station—notices that the creatures fly into the City Hall building, reinforcing the political reading of the story. The few people that avoided having their consciousness co-opted were exposed through their resistance and obvious bewilderment and the changes taking place. The controlled people are not perceptibly different from those going through their everyday lives in late capitalism. “Dulled, tired faces. People going home from work. Quite ordinary faces. None of them paid any attention to him. All sat quietly, sunk down in their seats, jiggling with the motions of the bus. The man sitting next to him unfolded a newspaper. He began to read the sports section, his lips moving. An ordinary man. Blue suit. Tie. A businessman, or a salesman. On his way home to his wife and family. [. . .] Going home—with their minds dead. Controlled, filmed over with the mask of an alien being that had appeared and taken possession of them, their town, their lives.” (18–19) It seems that no matter how total the alien invasion is, the economy continues on much as it had.
In an age of conformity, Dick’s “The Hanging Stranger” was a celebration of resistance against the horrors and banalities of late capitalist life. It induces fear in us, not because of the Lovecraftian creatures that have apparently taken over the world, but because that will apparently change very little about hoe we interact with each other and go about our daily lives.
Background to “The Hanging Stranger.”
Virtues of contrarianism in the workplace.
Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” about lynching. Lynching was certainly in Dick’s mind when writing the story.