It’s the ultimate catch-22 of horror fiction that if it draws its tropes and references from the world outside of the horror genre, many horror critics feel it loses horror credibility, while if it contains all the marks of exceptional literature — complex characters, intricate plotting, theme, mood and all the other ingredients of a truly immersive story — the literary critics feel that the horror elements detract from the seriousness of the work.
As Langan states in his acknowledgements to House of Windows, “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.”
I can understand why, because not many horror writers would have the guts to make their two main characters a couple of literature professors who constantly make references to such writers as Dickens, Melville, Hawthorne, and the poetry of Emily Dickinson, while also referencing H. P. Lovecraft and Henry James.
Some horror readers may, at this point, be reminded of Peter Straub’s novel Ghost Story (published exactly thirty years ago in 1979), and there are more than a few similarities between Ghost Story and House of Windows. Aside from the many literary references seeded throughout the two works, Both works are set in upstate New York. Both novels hint at an unnerving but never fully explained evil from the past influencing, if not instigating, tragic events in the present, and both novels are ambiguous as to whether the source of this evil comes from some supernatural agency or whether the real evil emerges from human emotions such as guilt, denial, and regret.
The most notable similarity between House of Windows and Ghost Story, however, is that both novels were written by writers who understand that horror, as a genre, is not merely about employing the tropes of supernatural fiction to tell a purely fantastic story, but using the fantastic elements of supernatural fiction to reflect the darker aspects of the real world, whether it is the monstrous capability of human nature to inflict physical and emotional pain upon another, or the ways in which we find ourselves haunted by the ghosts of our own emotional, psychological, and physical traumas.
The novel opens during a house party at which Veronica Croydon, a young literature professor whose older husband, Roger, mysteriously disappeared a couple of years before, abruptly confesses to a fellow professor that she knows what happened to her husband but she can’t tell anyone because no one would believe her.
Roger was a literature professor and acclaimed Dickens scholar, and Veronica had been one of his grad students when their affair resulted in the breakup of Roger’s thirty-plus year marriage. Roger had moved out of Belvedere House, the magnificent old house which he and his first wife had restored, and into Veronica’s tiny student apartment. Roger becomes estranged from Ted, his grown son who is a sergeant in the Special Forces. After Ted is killed in Afghanistan, Roger becomes obsessed with moving back into Belvedere House and Veronica, who believes being back in the house will help Roger recover from Ted’s death, does not object.
Soon, however, Veronica realizes that moving into Belvedere House was a mistake. Langan’s descriptions of the supernatural manifestations start out relatively low-key, but as Veronica begins to realize the full implications of the haunting, the reader begins to feel how much more horrifying these manifestations are than any gratuitously gothic ghost screaming and rattling chains.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the history of horror fiction is how its numerous flowerings, from the gothic novels of Walpole and Radcliffe to the early novels of King and Straub, have occurred in parallel with periods of radical upheavals in the political, cultural, and scientific worlds. As our culture transforms itself, so must the horror stories we tell. Perhaps no historical relationship reflects this more vividly than that of the brothers William and Henry James, the former a scientist who literally wrote the book on psychology and the latter a writer who penned one of the most widely read — and ambiguously presented — ghost stories ever written. Together they personify how truly intertwined psychology and horror can be, and how both can combine to create a dark mirror in which we perceive the reflection of our shadow selves.
Langan’s House of Windows illustrates how much this doubled nature of psychological horror still has to tell us about ourselves. During the slow building of Langan’s story, after it had become apparent to me that it would be a ghost story but before any ghost had appeared on the scene — I found myself asking, “What would a twenty-first-century ghost look like? And what would it take for a well-educated, extremely literate woman with a modern awareness of psychology to believe in the possibility of being haunted?”
Langan’s story takes these very elements — Veronica’s awareness of the psyche with the way it incurs and manifests damage and her familiarity with the ghosts who haunt the works of Dickens, Melville, and Hawthorne, not to mention the preoccupation with death and desire in Veronica’s own favorite Emily Dickinson — to invoke rather than ward off the possibility of being haunted. It is Veronica and Roger’s own preoccupation with words which makes them most vulnerable to being haunted, even as they deny that their own words have the ability to affect reality.
This theme of the power of words takes on a very meta context regarding Langan’s own story as Veronica says to her reluctant confidante, himself a horror writer:
I still had trouble with the idea that a few words spoken in anger could have such profound consequences, so physical-metaphysical an effect. I mean, words don’t mean anything, isn’t that what we believe these days? They’re just a self-contained, self-referential sign-system. You’re a writer, maybe you think differently, but I doubt you believe language has magic power. (p. 152)
Yet the very act of reading a novel such as House of Windows suggests that we do believe that words have power, the power to ensnare us, the power to make us reclassify so much classic literature as belonging to the genre of ghost stories, the power to make us believe even fleetingly in a world where our own words come back to haunt us.
House of Windows can be read on many levels: as a modern updating of the old-fashioned ghost story, as a commentary on the psychological “ghosts” created by physical and emotional abuse, and as a perceptive reading of the overlapping of classic literature with supernatural fiction. Beneath all of these, however, runs the ongoing questions of why we read at all, why do words and stories possess such an irresistible attraction for us, and what these stories can reveal — or tragically fail to reveal-to us about our own lives and experiences.
(Night Shade Books, 2009)