House of Windows by John Langan and Slights by Kaaron Warren
Reviewed by Richard Larson
19 October 2009
Two debut horror novels offering two distinct looks at the concept of fatherhood, Kaaron Warren's Slights and John Langan's House of Windows mine similar thematic territory in remarkably different ways and to sometimes varying degrees of success. But while both contain haunted houses and curses and plenty of rumination about family and responsibility, the two novels, when compared side by side, reveal the vastness of their genre's possibilities for expression.
In Slights, Kaaron Warren introduces us to Stevie, the troubled narrator who idolizes her dead father so fervently that she becomes a serial killer, just like him, almost as a way to get to know him better. She tells us that "I thought of my father as I was doing it, and the thought gave me strength. He did this, I thought. He did this again and again," and this act of mimicry enables her to make "discoveries about myself and my past" (p. 211). The novel begins as Stevie inadvertently causes her mother's death in a car accident, and the rest of the narrative is a sort of orphan's tale as she looks back into the past in an effort to discover where she came from. Through her own near-death experiences, Stevie has glimpsed the afterlife: "When I died I would go to a place where everyone with a slight against me could bite, scratch, fuck, flay, keep me for all eternity" (p. 366), she tells us, which speaks to the novel's preoccupation with its narrator's guilt over the death of her mother—the ultimate slight, so to speak—and her efforts to become closer to her father in the face of the loss, now, of both of her parents.
John Langan's House of Windows, however, is even more complex and more mature in its explorations of fatherhood, and wears its literary heart on its sleeve. The first of the novel's two epigraphs, from Great Expectations, describes how a particular spot in a house, once claimed by the narrator's sister, has become haunted upon her death; the place retains something of her, even after she is gone. And the second epigraph, from Dombey and Son, describes a father's impossible grief after losing his son. Indeed, House of Windows also documents a father's grief, and the sense of haunting—literally, here, in the form of a haunted house—in the aftermath of a death. But John Langan's brilliant novel is not at all straightforward or particularly easy to define. He presents a gently yet intricately layered narrative infused with the belief in the power of art, namely literature, to transform and shape a life.
House of Windows is a Club Story, to borrow John Clute's term; most of the narrative is the tale of Veronica Croydon, as told to an unnamed narrator, himself a horror novelist. She speaks at length about her husband, Roger, a professor at a small college in upstate New York (all of the primary characters in the novel are writers or academics) who has mysteriously gone missing. Late at night in the home of a mutual friend, Veronica promises to tell the narrator "what happened to Roger. You write those weird stories, don't you? Then you have to hear this. It's right up your alley" (p. 3). Her story begins a few years prior to the present, when Veronica stumbles into an affair with Roger, her professor at the time, who leaves his wife to be with her. Roger's son, Ted, abhors the union and arrives late one night at their apartment (after Roger has moved out of Belvedere House, the home he shared with his former wife) to confront his father about his plans to marry Veronica. The two begin a physical fight which ends up landing them both in jail. After a night behind bars, Roger effectively curses his son, who he already sees as a failure, "an embarrassment and a disgrace," to "know fitting torment" upon his death (p. 33). The curse provides the foundation on which the rest of the novel builds, as Roger and Veronica move into Belvedere House only to find that it is indisputably haunted.
Veronica immediately identifies Belvedere House as "the house of windows" (p. 7), an image that ends up referring figuratively to the idea that a house contains windows into forgotten memories, things tucked discreetly away. "The house was practically a labyrinth, stuffed full of furniture and decorations. Few places were less empty" (p. 42). Belvedere House is presented almost like a text, something to be read, an understanding strengthened by the novel's preoccupation with literary criticism. Roger is a Dickens scholar, and this provides an important framework for Langan's storytelling:
If melodrama abounds in Dickens's work, it is because he saw melodrama abounding in his life, in the world around him. From the beginning of his life, when he was yanked out of his routine and sent to work at a blacking factory, to its end, when he survived a train accident in France, Dickens was stalked by melodrama. So are we all, though much that passes for literature and literary criticism would like to close its eyes to it. (p. 24)
Not only a telling statement about genre, Roger's defense of his love of Dickens explains much about his character, for his life is also one swept up in melodrama. He stops speaking to his son after cursing him, and then Ted dies while serving in Afghanistan. Roger eventually quits teaching and devotes his time solely to a vast and complicated project in which he researches the circumstances of Ted's death in an attempt to somehow communicate with him beyond the grave. Roger and Veronica move to Belvedere House, which before they had been renting, and Veronica assumes this is because "near the house and its memories, Ted didn't seem so far off, so irretrievably lost" (p. 58), even while she identifies the house as Roger's "personal black hole, bending all his thoughts in its direction" (p. 57). The house is presented as a receptacle for memory, and the hallucinations that the couple experience—identified later as the presence of Ted's ghost—are often glimpsed in the house's abundant windows, further implying that there is more mystery within the narrative that we are unable to see without digging deeper. Again, the idea of the house as a text: "the rooms in the house had gone from rooms to symbols—everything had acquired a new level of meaning" (p. 98).
House of Windows is a haunted house story of the highest order, and it offers plenty of mysteries and scares. But it is also a celebration of literature, of the power of words themselves. Roger's words, when cursing Ted, possess such immense strength as to trap his soul forever between worlds, and indeed Roger and Veronica continually pore over more words, in the form of literature, as they search for meaning and understanding. In the end, it is Dickens who provides the surest window through which to view their experience as literature becomes a literal reflection of their lives, following the written narrative events of an obscure Dickens story long forgotten by Roger. But even then, Langan avoids providing tidy closure to the narrative, choosing instead to open up seemingly endless possibilities of interpretation:
The great writers are forever out ahead of us . . . We are always . . . trying to catch up to them, because as soon as we are sure we have—the moment we have arrived at a reading that we are gospel-positive explains a novel once and for all—we realize that there is something else, something left over, something we could not bring under our critical control. In fact, there are several such somethings, each of them suitable to form the core of an entirely new interpretation of the text. (p. 212)
Such is the nature of a house of windows: the view is different from each one. A Dickens-esque melodrama can become a horror novel about literary criticism. Right when you get comfortable with the idea of settling into an intellectual family narrative full of betrayals and secrets but nothing too sordid, you suddenly notice that "the walls start to shriek and the windows run with blood, and you find yourself in a completely different story than you'd anticipated" (pp. 212-213). This experience also occurs when reading Kaaron Warren's Slights, as what first feels like a coming-of-age story ends up being a novel about mass murder, and also, somehow, a novel about a daughter finally letting go of her father after his death. As in House of Windows, there is a haunted house, but of a different sort; this house is haunted by the presence, more figurative than literal, of Stevie's dead father. His dying wish was that she never abandon the house even after he is gone, and she discovers that this is because he buried the bones of all of his victims in the backyard. Stevie begins to dig, literally mining the remnants of her relationship with her father, putting together the pieces in a backyard "full of stories" (p. 129). This is also Stevie's curse—to be constantly searching, trying to finish a story with so many holes that they can't ever possibly be all filled in. Her father, just like Roger Croydon in House of Windows, has cursed her to an impossible fate, one which will eventually consume her: "My life is full of death, too. Right from childhood, when Dad used to show me pictures of his cases, it felt like something I knew" (p. 224).
The basic premise of Slights is lovely, albeit in a very dark way: a girl wounded by the loss of her father, by whom she always measured her hopes and dreams, ends up adopting his most secret hobby in an effort to connect to the relationship they once shared. "I think my actions are beyond my control. It is habit. My father had it too and perhaps his father. So what can I do? It's my birthright" (p. 302). Slights is written mostly in short, quick sentences, strong and assuredly written. Warren possesses a knack for expressing her narrator's voice, allowing even the most outlandish thoughts and ideas to be presented earnestly and believably. But the narrative is so full of diversions and tangents, and the voice itself so abrasive and callous, that the poetry inherent to that story, the tragedy of it, becomes almost lost. Random strangers fall into Stevie's orbit, and she either fails to relate to them or kills them—or, more often than not, both—and her inability to connect with the people around her translates into an inability to connect to the reader. At a point when the novel seems to be becoming a story about Stevie making amends for her abundance of slights which are doomed to haunt her in the afterlife, we are shown again and again how selfish and annoying she is. Warren provides no emotional core for us to hold on to, and in the end, when Stevie is finally released of the curse of responsibility, we feel little of the relief that follows Roger Croydon's ultimate release in House of Windows.
But I return to the idea of fatherhood, the nuances of which are what drive both of these novels forward. The tragic way in which Stevie finally learns the details of her father's murders, through the secret journal entries of her Aunt Jessie, is dealt with beautifully, providing the most emotionally charged pages of the novel as we realize what the concept of family really means to these characters. Also, in House of Windows, while the bulk of the story is focused on Veronica's retelling of her and Roger's story about the hauntings of Belvedere House, there is a beautiful moment when she remembers her last family trip with her own father, a whale-watching expedition; he is sick, and already physically deteriorating, but when standing at the rails of the boat, about to see the whales, he reminds Veronica of an old sailor, "the kind of guy new sailors . . . were told to listen to, because he'd already forgotten more about the sea than they'd ever learn" (p. 119). Three months later he is on a hospital bed attached to machines keeping him alive, and Veronica sees him there, remembering him standing on the boat, trying to reconcile the image of this man with the one she had seen before, the one "whom he saw himself as in his best moments" (p. 121). But she is able to connect this experience of whale-watching to her present state of being haunted; the gap between two worlds, the living and the dead, being somehow bridged. Something being given up.
[Whales] are gigantic. They're powerful. They roam around this absolutely incredible place—loathe Melville though I do, I have no problem understanding why he made God a whale—because that's what Moby Dick is about, isn't it? What's funny is—do you know, apparently whales used to be land animals? . . . The evidence is there in their skeletons. The bones in their flippers look like enormous hands. They have tiny, vestigial leg bones. Obviously, they breathe air. . . . At some point in the far distant past, they exchanged sun and sky for dark and saltwater. What made them do that? What catastrophe chased them from the surface of the earth? (p. 122)
The analogy to ghosts is clear, the line between the living and the dead being represented here by the division between land and sea, but it's also important that a memory of Veronica's father is what triggers this beautiful passage. Her experience navigating the relationship between Roger and his son is never entirely separate from her own memories of her father and his death, memories which loom as large in her mind as, for example, whales. And in the closing moments of House of Windows, as Veronica is in the middle of musing about the representation of fatherhood in Dickens's fiction, the narrator, previously playing only the smallest of roles in the novel, suddenly hears his young son cry out upstairs, where he had been sleeping. Immediately the narrator excuses himself and rushes up to his son. "Full of the joy that comes with discovering a story" (p. 260) after listening to Veronica tell her tale, his priorities are still the protection and consolation of his son in times of need, and so we are left in the end with the hope of a fatherly relationship still fully intact, no one dead or cursed. No one being haunted. The narrator's previously inexplicable presence in the novel is made poignantly relevant at the very end, lending an unexpectedly heartbreaking beauty to everything that came before.
Both Kaaron Warren and John Langan have published short story collections (Warren's is The Grinding House and John Langan's Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters, nominated for a Bram Stoker award) which are worth seeking out based on the strength of these debut novels. Slights displays a true knack for style and a highly imaginative vision which I look forward to seeing explored more fully in subsequent work from Kaaron Warren, even if this first effort sometimes seems a bit unfocussed and meandering. And while I'll restrain myself from labeling House of Windows a masterpiece of horror, avoiding possible accusations of exaggeration, I won't hesitate to say that I fully believe that John Langan will produce one in the near future. House of Windows is hopefully just a glimpse into the abundance of riches that Langan will offer the genre, as well as the literary community at large.
The horror genre is lucky to have two new writers of such quality and ambition.