(This review first appeared on StaticMultimedia.com on September 8, 2009)
A convoluted, psychological ghost story, John Langan’s House of Windows may hold your interest if your taste runs to literary novels (or if you are a staunch fan of the works of Charles Dickens, which eventually become integral to the plot). If you are looking for an edgy, chill-filled horror novel, look elsewhere.
Veronica Croydon, the second wife and widow of a renowned English professor, tells the story of her marriage and her husband’s mysterious disappearance over the course of two nights to a young writer. Both are among a group of guests, spending part of the summer at mutual friend’s Cape Cod vacation house. Veronica’s relationship with Roger Croydon began as one of his grad students; she, therefore, has been despised and gossiped about by most of the other guests, all professors at the same college. The writer sits politely as Veronica describes her affair with Roger, his divorce, their marriage, the altercations they have with Roger’s grown son, the son’s death during a tour in Afghanistan, Roger’s obsession with the events of his son’s death and the subsequent break down of both her husband and their relationship until his disappearance.
The heart of the horror revolves around a house and a curse. Belvedere House, a large old mansion with high ceilings and tall windows, was the house of Roger’s first marriage, the house where his son grew up and where son and father grew part. In its past, it had also served as a staging area for the experiments of a troubled painter, Rudolph de Castries, who believed that every place held hidden spaces. Through the artist’s short life, he explored the theory that those spaces can be revealed or opened by creating special diagrams and symbols. Roger Croydon, through his obsessive mapping of the exact time and location of his son’s death, reawakens the house’s malevolent power. Veronica, who along with Roger feels the son’s presence in the house, witnessed their last encounter, in which Roger not only disowned his son, but cursed him: “Your life is nothing….I cast you from me. All bonds are sundered; let our blood no longer be true. And when you die, may you know fitting torment; may you not escape your failure.” Roger feels he must guide his son’s spirit to rest, all the while denying to his wife and himself that his own actions may have condemned his son to some dark, after-death limbo.
A sick house, a painter whose work can reshape reality, special places that can act as portals to another reality, the grief-stricken survivor trying to communicate with or save the dead loved one from a black eternity are all nothing new. As the old adage goes, there are no new stories; everything has been written before and it’s a writer’s job to cobble together the elements in new and fascinating ways. A psychologically tormented character or two, violent death, and a mysterious house being givens in this genre, it’s the plot execution and pacing that makes or breaks the horror’s effectiveness. While Langan has found some interesting twists on the old elements, the sum of his construction is not enough to sustain suspense. In novel length, the story drags on much too long.
Veronica tells the same events to her reluctant one-man audience first in a succinct manner, then in more detail, then again in more depth. There are flashbacks within flashbacks as she relates Roger’s reminiscences of his son and first marriage. The plot device of one character telling the main story to another, which may have worked in years ago in Emily Bontë’s Wuthering Heights, can’t help but feel outdated and contrived. It did work in Anne Rice’s Interview With a Vampire, but there the interviewer sought out the storyteller with a hidden agenda in mind. Would anyone really sit and listen this long to a story told by a person one doesn’t like or believe to begin with? The young writer, narrator of the framed story, listens to Veronica’s story not because he’s had a supernatural experience himself and desperately seeks answers, but because he feels guilty for his part in gossiping about her. He does happen to be a horror writer, so he also feels he can’t turn down listening to a story that may spark his imagination. As a horror writer though, wouldn’t he, like the reader, see where the story will end from the foreshadowing at the very start of Veronica’s account? Can the reader suspend believe enough that it seems natural for the narrator to be capable of quoting, word by word, page-long conversations that happened two years in the past? Another problem is Veronica herself, an over-educated, over-analyzing person, presented from the start as an unsympathetic character, which makes it difficult for the reader to truly care about her ordeal.
Whittle this book down to novella or shorter and House of Windows might wield an unforgettable spine-chilling punch. As it stands certain parts of this story do stick in the memory, but overall, the plot drags to the point of inertia. At times, it feels the reader is actually doing the research on the house’s history with Veronica instead of being propelled into the depths of a heart-pounding mystery by her discoveries. The most dedicated readers will no doubt read on to the end, mildly curious to find out how the various elements fall into their inevitable places; expect no surprises or ah-ha ending and you won’t be disappointed.