Death in Her Hands, author Ottessa Moshfegh’s third novel, is an engaging story that could only be described as psychological horror mixed with just the right amount of dark humor. The book is, for lack of a better word, different—but in a good way. Moshfegh’s tale begins as if it’s going to be like a traditional whodunnit murder mystery with a vulnerable elderly woman caught up at its center. It’s nothing of the sort but didn’t disappoint.
Meet Vesta Gul, a 72-year-old widow, and her dog, Charlie. Vesta lives in an isolated cabin, which used to be a Girl Scout camp in the rural town of Levant outside of Bethsmane. (I googled the towns mentioned by Moshfegh but could only find a Levant in Maine. I couldn’t find Bethsmane or Vesta’s former hometown of Monlith).
One of the few highlights of Vesta’s day is taking a dawn walk in the woods surrounding her cabin with Charlie. She and Charlie walk the same route every morning. At the beginning of the novel, she finds a note on the ground that reads, “Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.”
First of all, there is no dead body. The note is pinned to the ground by small rocks. The handwriting is neat, nondescript print on crisp, lined notebook paper. Vesta makes note of the fact that the edges are clean and not ridged with the usual paper fringe left by ripping a page from a spiral notebook.
The note gets Vesta’s mind working and her imagination flies to many disturbing and darkly amusing scenarios. Vesta at first takes the note literally and imagines Magda being a murder victim with her dead body left to rot in the woods, complete with a locket around her neck with pictures in it. Another scenario Vesta imagines is that the note is the discarded beginning of a short story by a teenage boy named Blake.
Moshfegh sets up the main character in the first chapter by showing the reader her inner thoughts. Vesta lives alone with only her beloved dog, Charlie. She adopted Charlie from a shelter as a puppy after her husband, a German scientist named Walter, died of Cancer. Not long after, Vesta makes a drastic life change by moving across the country from west to east coast. She purchases a secluded cabin in a rural town. The highlight of her week is her Monday morning trip to the nearest supermarket located 10 miles away in Bethsmane. She plans to live out her days in rustic country simplicity with Charlie. She spends her days reading, gardening, and listening to the radio.
Moshfegh keeps us interested in Vesta, who is highly imaginative and more than slightly paranoid. Her mind dives deep into the note and creates possible scenarios for the mysterious Magda that range from macabre and melancholy to bizarre and comically absurd. Vesta’s musings are far from boring and got my imagination working as well.
While Vesta comes off as a bit snobby as she makes harsh, snap judgments about the poor working-class families of Levant, Moshfegh succeeds in making her sympathetic. Vesta could be anyone’s grandmother, mother, or elderly aunt.
Unable to forget about the note, she heads to the local library to look up information online. She searches how to solve a murder mystery and finds an article on tips for mystery writers. She prints out a character development questionnaire to help focus on Magda.
Moshfegh seamlessly weaves in details about Vesta’s background and her life with Walter as she continues to think about who Magda was and who Blake, the boy she decided wrote the note, might be. Vesta treats Magda and Blake like characters in a story she’s writing. Vesta is an analytical thinker in her own way and has a creative imagination.
As she begins to imagine Magda’s life, she begins to think about her own upbringing and marriage to Walter. Much like a writer in real life, Vesta unintentionally begins to explore their life and emotions through writing fiction.
Vesta doesn’t wax poetic as she recalls her marriage to Walter. She gives a realistic view of their relationship. Vesta and Walter were opposites. He was a doctor and scientist ruled by logic and critical of Vesta’s overactive imagination, emotional nature, and paranoia. At first, she talks about missing him. After his death, she adopts Charlie and he fills the gap left by her husband. Then, she gradually talks about how critical Walter was and how he cheated on her.
After she finishes with the character questionnaire, Vesta writes a poem for Blake, and leaves it at the spot where she found the note. Restless, she returns shortly after to find her note gone. The rocks she’d used to pin the note down are shaped into the letter “B”. She also noticed that her garden which she’d left filled with her boot prints has been smoothed over. Vesta suspects someone was there and begins to dig where she planted her seeds. She finds them gone. Looking into her cabin window from the outside, Vesta describes seeing the shadow of a man inside. She imagines a being whom she calls “Ghod” killed Magda and may be stalking her.
My mind, like Vesta’s, began to go off in different directions. Is Vesta being stalked, pranked, or are her perceptions part of the fictitious world she’s building around Magda? Given her creative flights of fancy, emotional nature, and paranoia could Vesta’s perceptions be caused by mental illness?
Vesta tells Magda’s tale like an expert fiction writer, drawing the reader into a story-within-a-story until the reality beneath the surface begins to poke through. The reader begins to question the perceptions of the narrator whose reliability comes under question.
Moshfegh’s novel delivers the unexpected. Death in Her Hands is an engaging and disturbing tale of psychological horror. Are Vesta’s experiences the product of living in isolation? Are the demons of her past haunting her to the brink of madness? Who was Magda? Does she exist?
Author, Ottessa Moshfegh, has written a genius tale of psychological horror with Death in Her Hands. If you like psychological horror with an unconventional twist, I highly recommend you add Death in Her Hands to your reading list.
Death in Her Hands was published by Penguin Press in June of 2020 and is currently available.
According to Ottessa Moshfegh’s author page at Penguin Random House’s website, Moshfegh won the PEN/Hemingway Award for debut fiction for Eileen (2015). According to Wikipedia, Eileen takes place in 1960 Massachusetts and tells the story of a young woman who works as a secretary at a prison. The book was also shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Man Booker Prize.
Moshfegh’s follow-up is the New York Times best-seller, My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018). The book follows a young woman’s life in New York City after graduating from college and losing both of her parents to Cancer. Death in Her Hands has also made the New York Times best-seller list.
Besides novels, Moshfegh had also published a short story collection Homesick for Another World (2017), and a novella, McGlue (2014). Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Moshfegh has lived in numerous places. After graduating college, she lived in China, where she worked in a punk bar and taught English. Moshfegh moved to New York City in her mid-twenties where she worked for Overlook Press. She reportedly left the city after she contracted cat-scratch fever. She currently lives in Southern California.