by John Langan
260 pages, Night Shade Books (review copy)
Review by S.P. Miskowski
English professor and well-known Dickens scholar Roger Croydon has disappeared. The tale his wife Veronica offers to a young horror writer, over late-night glasses of wine at the home of an acquaintance, is intended to describe if not explain the circumstances of that disappearance. In fact, no final explanation may be possible. The answers lie in the complex geometric structure of the house occupied by the Croydons, and in the harsh words spoken by Roger to his only son, Ted, just prior to Ted's death during combat in Afghanistan.
House of Windows is a remarkably engaging synthesis of the themes of Charles Dickens, ubiquitous tales of terror such as "The Monkey's Paw" and classic works of horror by Shirley Jackson, M.R. James and H.P. Lovecraft. To the author's credit, it does not read like a scholarly work, but a believable exploration of human weakness and parental grief. In the best horror tradition, John Langan creates a plausible landscape with recognizable characters in order to convince us of the possibility of the supernatural in every day life.
Roger's marriage to Veronica (one of his former graduate students) is the final straw in a lifelong conflict between Roger and his son. When that conflict erupts into physical violence, the two men part company--but not before Roger delivers a farewell speech which Veronica, in its aftermath, comes to see as a curse. Roger, although he refuses to admit the nature of his final words to Ted, begins to assemble a strange map, one intended to account for all conditions in the known world at the exact moment of Ted's death. Descending into this geometrical and astronomical endeavor, Roger is unaware of the forces his efforts are unleashing upon his home and his wife.
Langan is never overly explicit in his depiction of Roger and Veronica as they construct their own private nightmare. He doesn't explain what happens. Instead, he allows a character that is significantly flawed and morally ambiguous to guide us through the last days of an increasingly unhappy life. Like Eleanor in Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, Veronica is not intended to elicit the reader's sympathy. Rather, she reveals what she knows of events that have left her damaged beyond repair, and her knowledge is obviously limited. We catch glimpses of the emerging horror in her marriage, and we are meant to put together the pieces of this disturbing jigsaw. The scary scenes are that much sharper and unsettling because our imagination is filling in the gaps.
John Langan's previous published work includes the collection Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters. He seems to be mining the territory shared by Joe Hill and Peter Straub--the meticulously described real world occasionally losing focus to reveal something quite horrible just beneath the surface. It might not be real. It might be an illusion or a psychological state, but it chills us nevertheless. Perhaps it would not be so frightening, if it did not follow our protagonist's movements with such merciless precision.