Sunday, December 6, 2015

House of Windows (2009) by John Langan

House of Windows by John Langan (2009): John Langan's first novel is terrific, an erudite ghost story informed by Langan's knowledge of the horror genre and by his experiences in academia. It's a first-person tale within a frame -- a perennial structure in horror. It's a novel of academia. And its main narrator would seem utterly persuasive if it weren't for brief, gem-like moments throughout her narration that seem to highlight a pronounced lack of self-knowledge. Or do they?

Over the course of two long nights, SUNY-Huguenot graduate student and sessional instructor Veronica Croydon tells the story of her husband's mysterious disappearance to a narrator who seems to be John Langan. She does so because Langan writes horror stories and thus may be a good choice to hear the tale. During the day between the two nights, Langan and his wife discuss the possibility that he may also have been chosen for his perceived gullibility when it comes to the supernatural.

Veronica's narrative voice is sharp, self-assured, and intermittently unsympathetic. She's a great creation. Overall, her story of the supernatural seems convincing. It's the sudden revelations of a pronounced lack of self-evaluation spotted throughout the text that raise the possibility that her narration is flawed or possibly confabulated in its entirety. But these moments are few and far between, and subtle enough in most cases to sneak by.

Langan's depiction of academic life rings utterly true to this former academic. Veronica reminds me of a handful of graduate students I've known without in any way being a stereotype. The 40-years-older, married professor she herself marries within about a year of starting her graduate studies is also familiar without being a type. But we learn of him (and everything inside the frame) only from Veronica's point-of-view. Do we trust her? Do we trust any first-person narrator? Do we trust any narrator at all?

I don't know. In general, the discontinuities in the narrative include moments in which Veronica engages in stereotypical gender constructions of the male while at other points bristling at such constructions being attached to the female. She denigrates Herman Melville for being a detail-obsessed windbag while occasionally relating such a list of minutiae that the narrative almost bogs down in soporific descriptions of making dinner or sitting in a living room. She may have become her near-future husband's favourite student in the space of one class, with their out-of-class socializing beginning immediately thereafter, but she doesn't believe in being familiar with her own students. The failure of the earlier marriage was all the fault of the first wife -- but we learn of the first wife only through Veronica's narration. Well, we learn almost everything only through Veronica's narration. And a story that details the tragically flawed relationships of at least two sets of fathers and sons -- as commented upon throughout by Veronica -- also features Veronica's distant, annoyed relationship with a mother with whom she goes years between conversations. 

The major characters filling out the novel's pas de quatre are Ted, Roger's 30ish son from his previous marriage, and the house the Croydons have lived in for decades, Belvedere House. It's an old house. And it's about to become haunted. Or something.

Langan's vision of the supernatural in this novel bridges a gap between the cosmic, impersonal, non-traditional horrors of the Lovecraftian and the more traditional wonders and terrors of a ghost story, with psychology hanging over all. It helps to have read Fritz Leiber's great Our Lady of Darkness before reading his novel, but one doesn't need to: Langan lays everything out that the reader needs to know. Knowledge of the Leiber novel enriches one's enjoyment of House of Windows, though. And it's a swell novel.

As is this novel. The horrors here are both gross and subtle, supernatural and strictly human. There may not have ever been a haunting. But whether or not there was, there's a story of a haunting and the haunted -- there's horror and sorrow. Highly recommended.

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