Saturday, September 10, 2011

A House with Too Many Windows

House of Windows is the first novel by John Langan, whose short horror fiction (including the collection Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters as well as a number of as yet uncollected stories) has been justly praised for its deft mixture of supernatural terror with literary observation. House of Windows is similarly ambitious, attempting to balance a Lovecraftian haunted house story with a study of a difficult father/son relationship and the decline of an unlikely marriage. But Langan's characterization and themes, which might have been substantial enough to support a novella, lack the depth necessary for a full-length novel.  The resulting book is repetitive, unsubtle, and only intermittently involving, although a few fine passages, both "literary" and "genre," and a strong climax demonstrate the underlying potential of the material.

The novel's primary narrator is Veronica Croydon, whose much-older husband Roger has been missing for two years. One night she reveals to a casual acquaintance that she knows what happened to him. Over two nights she tells the full story: her relationship with Roger, which began when he was a famous, married professor, and she a graduate student, in the college English department; Roger's strained relationship with Ted, the child of his first marriage, a soldier older than Veronica and disgusted at his father's new life; Roger's emotional collapse in the aftermath of Ted's death in Afghanistan, culminating in a leave of absence from teaching; his and Veronica's ill-fated decision to move back into Belvedere House, the mansion where Ted grew up; and the growing certainty of both that an inhuman presence has fixed its attention upon them.

Obviously, the premise of the novel is potent enough: fraught father/son relationships are very real, the death of a son is a tragic loss at any age, and marriages with a large age gap are sure to have their own difficulties and unexpected virtues.  The trouble is that House of Windows never provides much specific or resonant insight into any of these issues.  Despite backstories featuring troubled family relationships of their own, Veronica and Roger never emerge as complicated characters with distinctive personalities. He is smart, stubborn, moderately arrogant-- in other words, precisely the image of an distinguished but aging intellectual.  Veronica is equally smart, with a feisty stubbornness of her own.  You can see in the abstract how they might be a good match, but without establishing more nuance of personality the novel can't do much to make their dynamic real.  Roger's estrangement from Ted likewise fails to build on the inherent pathos of the concept because their relationship is so broadly drawn, with a generic strict father and sullen teenager of the type you'd encounter in a movie of the week.  Their poignant childhood bonding experience is literally the act of tossing a baseball around.

It doesn't help that Veronica's monologue shows a marked lack of subtlety. At various points she dutifully explains what Roger is thinking and why, laying out the novel's uncomplicated themes with a directness that further obviates this power. (Theoretically this could be unreliable narration, but if that was the intention it doesn't come across.) Although the climactic sequence features some potent supernatural symbolism whose meaning is left to the reader to interpret, the very last page offers a fictional quote from Roger's scholarly writings that serves as a blunt thematic summation.

The dialogue is also surprisingly wooden, particularly Roger's. I assume it's an attempt to capture the stiff diction of some academics, but it's ridiculously exaggerated. Here is a long but representative sample of his casual conversation:
Just as the ride was beginning, I heard someone call my name, twice. Not 'Roger,' but 'Roger Croydon,' so I assumed it was someone I knew. After all, how many Roger Croydons can there be? More than one, apparently, for I spent the next few minutes searching through the crowd for a familiar face, and found none. I was certain whoever had called to me was standing across the room. The voice sounded rather distant. In a space of that size, however, with everyone talking and the carousel's music playing, who can say for sure? The consequence was, I was occupied for the length of your ride.
It's like a formal report from a bureaucrat with no sense of language.

Certainly the novel's lack of emotional resonance is not due to a paucity of detail. House of Windows is laden with facts, digressions, and partially integrated or otherwise superfluous material. The frame story is a case in point. While the bulk of the book is taken up by Veronica's account of events, there's also occasional narration by the man to whom she is telling her story, a horror writer with a wife and child of his own. Frame stories of this type have, of course, a venerable history, but that doesn't mean they're always the right choice, and this one adds little. The central problem is that, even allowing for dramatic license, Veronica's voice, while ideal for the conceit of first person prose, is impossible to credit as a spontaneous account in actual spoken words. The writer's fears and uncertainties about his own young son do provide a thematic counterpoint to the story of Roger and Ted, but there are less involved ways to achieve a similar effect.

The frame story also undercuts the momentum of Veronica's tale, in a way that demonstrates just how overloaded House of Windows is.  In the first 13 pages (which owing to narrow margins and long paragraphs, is a more substantial chunk of text than you might imagine), the writer offers a concise precis of Roger and Veronica's history: Roger's unhappy marriage, his affair with Veronica, Ted's death and Roger's disappearance from public life.  Then, when Veronica starts talking, she reiterates this material, at greater length but without greater interest; it is just what you might think an intellectually-charged affair between a young grad student and a sixtyish professor might be, exactly how an estranged's father's grief would play out. It takes another 50 pages, by which point the novel has run over 30,000 words, for the story proper to begin. I hope it goes without saying that I don't object to slow-building horror novels, but this one doesn't build at all; it idles.

A paragraph from around the moment when things begin to liven up may help demonstrate what I'm getting at. During his leave of absence from the college, Roger takes up jogging.
Sometimes, Roger varied the route he took to or from the college. Once he'd crossed the bridge over the Svartkill, he'd turn right on Water Street and push up the steep hill, there. Or he'd turn left, onto Founders, loop around to 32, and follow that into town. At first, he did so for the sake of variety, to look at some different scenery. He took other routes, too. Over breakfast I'd ask him where he'd gone and he'd narrate his run: past Pete's Corner Pub, only recently emptied from the previous night, its doors open to air the place out; past the bus station, full of early morning commuters to the City; or past the quiet neighborhoods around the college, nodding at the occasional fellow-jogger. If he was feeling especially ambitious, he kept going past SUNY to Dunkin' Donuts.
On its own, the paragraph is unexceptionable. The language is clean, what's described is thoroughly realistic. It's also utterly without interest. What are we to glean from all these facts, this miniature gazetteer? The first sentence makes the important point about the character, and sets up the eventual revelation that he spends more and more time jogging past Belvedere House; the subsequent sentences say nothing unexpected or striking about Roger, the act of jogging, or the places through which he jogs. I imagine it sounds like I'm harping unduly on this, but the pace of the novel is so slow that sterile detail of this type is prevalent, and deeply distracting.

Even some of the novel's better supernatural sequences feel slightly surplus to requirements. At one point, trying to escape the atmosphere of Belvedere House, Roger and Veronica take a trip to Cape Cod, which proves disastrous, as the horror follows them. What Veronica sees on Martha's Vineyard is the first scene that feels more substantive than suggestive, but it's also metaphysically rather random, and the (beautifully evoked) menacing side of the Vineyard is detached from the mode and setting of the rest of the novel, more like a separate short story on similar themes. As in any haunted house novel, the house itself has a shadowed history, involving two famous abstract artists, one of whom had unusual and suggestive theories about the power of place. What there is of this backstory is quite effective, but it's so scanty compared to the main tale of Roger, Veronica, and Ted that it fades into the background, and its significance to the ultimate resolution is minimal.

That resolution, in which a nightmare journey through the rooms of the house captures the pain, emotional and physical, of the cycle of familial violence and cruelty is quite intense, communicating emotional force earlier passages lacked. Also moving are the details of Roger's coping mechanism after Ted's death, a mixture of academic research and ill-defined spiritual reasoning, which is a realistic variation on recognized grieving processes, and fits the book's general atmosphere quite well.  These portions of the novel, and a few scenes in which Roger displays a lighter side that play against his stereotype, remind the frustrated reader that Langan is a gifted writer of laudable ambition. While he may not have yet mastered the novel form, House of Windows is a smoothly-written novel that promises great things to come.

1 comment:

  1. John Langan knows his way with Horror novels. I heard that it has a concept of fatherhood. Literally speaking, a house with too many windows can be spooky and tiring when it comes to cleaning.