On his page of “Acknowledgements,” John Langan had this to say about his debut novel: “This book had a hard time finding a home: the genre people weren’t happy with all the literary stuff; the literary people weren’t happy with all the genre stuff.” Indeed, House of Windows is a difficult tale to classify.
Langan definitely pursues a literary style most of the time, but readers will find occasional graphic descriptions that would find themselves more at home on the pages of a splatterpunk story than one steeped in the halls of academia. Think Henry James and Joyce Carol Oates with just a few paragraphs of Joe Lansdale.
House of Windows is not a rapid page turner, due both to the content and the format. The tale is related in minute detail, and some of those details are necessarily redundant. And the tiny margins and light type face make each page seem to last longer than it should. Yet the novel, as a whole, is thought provoking, satisfying and, at times, frightening.
Like many good haunted house and ghost stories (and House of Windows is both), the narrator is repeating a story he heard from another source. Following a late night party a young college instructor and writer of horror stories find himself alone with the beautiful Veronica Croydon. Veronica’s husband, Roger, a prominent literature professor, critic and Dickens scholar, 40 years her senior, mysteriously disappeared, and Veronica has been the subject of suspicion and speculation since.
Because the young man has published supernatural novels, Veronica decides he is the one to hear the true story. But before he learns of hauntings that have driven Veronica first to drink and then to psychiatric counseling, he learns of how the graduate student stole Roger from his 30-year marriage and alienated his friends and his son. After a short period of happiness, the couple moves into Belvedere House. The sprawling manse is one of those weird places that infuses itself with the problems of those who inhabit it and attracts troubled spirits.
Eventually, a confrontataion between Roger and his son, a special forces soldier soon to be deployed to Afghanistan, leads to a curse that will be the catalyst that brings the house alive. Strange faces appear in the windows and memories take on lives of their own.
When his son dies in an RPG attack, Roger becomes obsessed with recreating the circumstances of his death, building a diorama that occupies much of the third floor. Meanwhile, the boy’s spirit attaches itself to Veronica and makes the house and surrounding countryside resonant with despair. Ever the researcher Veronica soon learns that she and Roger are not the first to fall under the house’s influence.
Finally, Roger and his son will have to meet again, but as we already know from the outset, this will not be a happy reunion.
If you are looking for a quick, easy read a la Dean Koontz or Lansdale, House of Windows is not for you. But if you appreciate the more traditional ghost stories of James, Dickens, and even Peter Straub—and, yes, you need to like the academic style of writers like Oates—here is a novel to enjoy as you sit by a fire in the dark of night.
Note: I was curious when I noted the similarity between the names of horror writers John Langan and Sarah Langan, and the titles of their most recent books House of Windows and Audrey’s Door, both haunted house novels. After much research I discovered that, although they admire each other’s work, they are not related, at least not by blood.
Mark Graham reviewed books for the Rocky Mountain News from 1977 until the paper closed its doors in February 2009. His “Unreal Worlds” column on science fiction and fantasy appeared regularly in the paper since 1988. He has reviewed well over 1,000 genre books. If you see a Rocky Mountain News blurb on a book, it is likely from a review or interview he wrote. Graham also created and taught Unreal Literature, a high school science fiction class, for nearly 30 years in the Jefferson County Colorado public schools.