Night Shade Books, 2009, 256 pages
When a young writer finds himself cornered by a beautiful widow in the waning hours of a late-night cocktail party, he seeks at first to escape, to return to his wife and infant son, but the tale she weaves, of her missing husband, a renowned English professor, and her lost stepson, a soldier killed on a battlefield on the other side of the world, of phantasmal visions, a family curse, and a house... the Belvedere House, a striking mansion whose features suggest a face, hidden just out of view, draws him in, capturing him. What follows is a deeply psychological ghost story of memory and malediction, loss and remorse.
I've read a fair few haunted house stories, including several that purport to be "literary." John Langan, a contemporary horror writer, hammers the literary aspect home by making all his protagonists English professors. House of Windows has all the elements of a traditional haunted house story, but adds some interesting twists and turns. There is a spooky old house, and it is haunted, but the ghost is the product of one character's wrath and hubris, and the horror is mostly psychological, though there were a few nods to Lovecraftian tropes when the supernatural makes its appearance.
House of Windows is written as a sort of fireside ghost story: it is narrated over the course of one long evening (and well into the morning) by one English professor to another. Veronica Croydon is the young wife (and former grad student) of the much older Roger Croydon. Veronica is now an English professor herself (albeit only an adjunct), and a former student of Roger's; he traded in his first wife for the younger model, the two of them moved in together to the Belvedere House, and then Roger disappeared. Veronica, of course, is now the subject of much salacious gossip and conspiracy theorizing, and after a late-night cocktail party, she decides, seemingly on a whim, to tell the whole story to one of her colleagues. This colleague is rather like the faceless narrator Lockwood in Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights — he has no real role in the story, other than to serve as a device to whom the story is told. Given Langan's other literary references (explicit, and some he mentions in the author's afterword), I suspect this was as deliberate as some of his other literary invocations.
Veronica's story, it turns out, is a long, strange one that involves a curse, a ghost, a Faustian pact of sorts, and a damnation of sorts. As she tells it, fully conscious of how weird and insane it sounds, she knows that what she's saying will be dismissed by any rational listener, which is why she spontaneously unburdens herself to a colleague in the wee hours of the morning after many drinks.
House of Windows is long, and most of it is delving into the psychology of the two central characters, Veronica and Roger. Veronica is mostly a passive observer, though a very intelligent and perceptive one, especially given that she was the primary victim of Roger's actions, and she describes her own state of mind at every stage in exquisite detail. Roger was an egotistical, arrogant bastard, and yet, not exactly a villain. He loved Veronica, and never outright mistreated her, and even after everything he did, and all the harm that it brought about, to her as well as to others, one understands that Veronica is not so much angry at him and what he wrought, nor is she precisely grieving for him — she has been forced to accept that what happened happened and not only was there nothing she could do about it, there were very few people she could tell about it and expect to be taken seriously.
The supernatural elements, when they appear, are dramatic and strange. I compared them to Lovecraft not because there are monsters or cosmic horrors, but rather, some of the horrors are literally incomprehensible to the human mind, and when Veronica encounters an angry, unquiet spirit and the house it occupies, it's perhaps the best description I've ever read of someone having to roll against SAN loss while trying to describe just what it is she saw. That said, because the author is trying to make it both relatable (in its connection to Roger and his son) and weird and sanity-shattering, I sometimes found the descriptions hard for the reader to comprehend as well.
A long book with a relatively small payoff, but it's the experience along the way that makes this a notable entry in the horror field, and it may in the future be regarded as an underrated gem. I'm certainly going to seek out more of Langan's work in the future when I'm in the mood for lit-horror/dark fiction.
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