If H.P. Lovecraft and Saul Bellow had ever collaborated on a ghost story, the result might be very much like John Langan's debut novel House of Windows. Not so much in style, but in the way the two writers would temper each other and blend their signature motifs into something simultaneously more sinister and more sophisticated.
The central characters in this story are both literature scholars, principally of the nineteenth century. Veronica, the narrator, is young, recently degreed, and teaches early nineteenth century literature, primarily Hawthorne. Roger Croydon is an expert on Charles Dickens. The novel opens at a retreat where mutual friends have gathered with Veronica snaring a young horror writer into listening to her account of what happened to her husband, Roger. He has been officially missing for over two years. Veronica claims to know what happened to Roger, but will not tell the authorities. "Because it's impossible," she says. "What happened to Roger is impossible."
So the writer stays up listening to Veronica's story of a love affair gone horribly, unpredictably, weirdly wrong.
In this way, Langan predisposes us to take what follows seriously. He has already told us what happens is impossible, so if we continue to read, it's on us to deal with our own skepticism. Yet Langan does not then take advantage of our willing suspension of disbelief to hand us an absurd haunted house yarn. Instead, he carefully sets the scene and lets the story unfold in cautious, closely-observed personal revelations that for a good part of the novel could easily be read as the shared neuroses of a married couple under too much strain. By the time the genuinely unbelievable elements emerge, they come almost as a relief, revealing that it is not all in Veronica's and Roger's heads.
Roger Croydon is a well-respected professor. Veronica enrolls in his class on Dickens and over the next few weeks and months they fall in love, despite a nearly four-decade difference in age. Even before taking Croydon's class, Veronica is well aware of the stories, the clichés, the pitfalls of professors sleeping with their students. Croydon himself has such a reputation. Specifically as an egocentric professor who gets a bit drunk at parties, and whose long-suffering wife, Joanne, must be a saint to put up with him and his alleged infidelities.
Here is the touch of Bellow, principally Herzog—
So when Veronica rescues him—
The third element in the novel is Croydon's grown son, Ted. It is Ted who anchors the unfolding weirdness and horror that first creeps in and then overwhelms Veronica's and Roger's life together. Ted is the son who disappoints, the prodigal, the scion of alien sentiment. When he was born he became the focus of all Roger's parental longing, longing that stemmed from his childhood disillusion with his own father, who was an abusive, dictatorial, fundamentalist alcoholic brute. Roger is intent on doing everything different, magnificently so, being the absolute opposite of what his father had been for him.
Roger lavishes Ted with attention. Not altogether selfless, but enormously generous. Baseball and books are the twin joys of the father-son dynamic—
Roger Croydon is a self-obsessed man. And not without cause. By all rights, given his upbringing, the last thing that ought to have resulted was success. Especially success at such a rarefied profession, in such a refined field. Roger Croydon was forced to make himself the person his father seemed bent on preventing him from being—
But he is unprepared for Ted's ultimate rejection of almost everything Roger wants for him. Nor is he the kind of man who can simply accept the divide. Ted's failure to meet Roger's expectation erodes Roger's tolerance, until finally Roger in his own turn rejects Ted, especially when Ted, against nearly everything Roger believes in, joins the military. In heartbreaking steps we are shown their mutual alienation from each other. Leading finally to the curse at the core of the horror.
Croydon divorces his wife and moves in with Veronica. When Veronica discovers that she is pregnant, Croydon proposes. Veronica then makes a fatal mistake. She sends Ted, who is serving in the Army, an announcement that she and Roger have married.
The result is Ted showing up at three in the morning, screaming at his father, and triggering a fist fight that lands them both in jail for the night. The next day, Veronica bails them out. On the parking lot, Roger does the first of many unexpected and cruel things. He curses his son to his face. The words are delivered with the precision of a literary artist. Veronica stands helpless in the presence of the vitriol spewed between these two, father and son. Ted walks away, dismissing it all with a surly "Whatever" and leaves to return to his life.
Roger then has a heart attack.
Watching over him in the hospital, Veronica suffers a miscarriage.
So begins the long chain of increasingly surreal events that culminates in the story Veronica tells to a writer. A writer of horror stories. Because he, because of his craft, may understand.
We come now to the Lovecraftian elements of the novel, which are gradually introduced, piece by brick by scene, from the moment we are brought to the House.
Belvedere House. A nineteenth century Gothic manor in western New York state on a par with Pyncheon House or Satis House or Dotheby Hall or the Ennis-Brown House. But mostly it is thematically similar to Dickens' Bleak House, which novel is cited throughout House of Windows. Bleak House itself is a large, meandering sprawl, with odd corridors and eccentric warrens, and the subject a bitter family dispute carried on in Britain's Court of Chancery. It is the book that Roger Croydon is teaching when he meets Veronica, and is rereading during the course of the novel, and the book Ted, who was never a reader, ends up reading on his own while in Afghanistan.
At first, Langan's choice of Bleak House as a recurrent literary touchpoint seems arbitrary. Any of half a dozen Dickens novels would seem to have done just as well, some better—
Belvedere House is so named after an American artist who spent a summer in it and developed a new style. His work was always controversial, never extremely popular, but what he produced while living at this house proved among his best work, if his most disturbing. His paintings, more palimpsests beneath which lie the maps to a different reality, "inspired" by his time in the house, point the way to the growing and consuming consequence evoked by Roger's words.
Veronica, for her part, tries to understand, to mediate, to steer them away from the course set by Roger's anger and disappointment. She's wiser than we might expect and in another break with cliché proves more hard-headed and insightful than even her obsessed husband.
There is a geometry of unseen landscape revealed through the eyes of Belvedere House in the course of the novel. It is there that Roger's obsessions take root and grow into a consuming tangle of self-recrimination and loathing. Because after the curse he has laid on his son, Ted is killed in Afghanistan.
Veronica does her best to be supportive. But what she comes to call their Mutual Weirdness takes on more and more concrete aspects and she cannot avoid the truth of what is happening to them, which is—
The skill Langan brings to his novel is impressive on several levels. Firstly, he imitates Joseph Conrad in his conceit of a story within a frame. Veronica is the Marlow of this story and she sits in a comfortable living room, drinking wine with a friend, and relays the tale. The fact that the prose quickly ascends to a level of exposition gloriously at odds with such a telling slips by the reader. One accepts the first-rate narrative devices and elegant descriptions, the almost cinematic review of place and poignance, without question.
Secondly, but equally notable, is the way almost all of what Veronica describes is conditional. Throughout the novel the reader is permitted to say "Nonsense!" to the supernatural aspect. It is completely subjective, the eyewitness testimony as easily taken as hallucination as reality. But on such hallucinations true horror builds upon ordinary life. There may be a sinister element, a supernatural foil. It may also be a mutually-sustained nightmare involving only Veronica and Roger, the kind of profoundly personal narrative produced and credited by people so thoroughly inside each other's heads that what takes place between them is far more real than anything outside the walls in which they live. But what Langan achieves is the effect of both these explanations being true. Roger laid a curse, which evoked dark forces that began to swallow them in a morass of non-Euclidean swamp-lines. Roger laid a curse that started Veronica on a road to discover exactly who this man really is, and only the metaphor of a ghost story serves to explain the irrationality of their subsequent lives.
Anchoring all this is their shared profession. Both are literary academics for whom The Word is more than a device for relaying information. Words matter. Both of them understand the power of the writer's gift, the potential for change, both in one's self and others, through the incisive sentence, the beautiful paragraph, the well-wrought argument. The power of Roger's curse on his son is not the dismissive rant of an angry parent, but the honed obloquy of someone trained in the precise deployment of words with the full knowledge that they are concrete, that they carry intent as well as meaning, that they define. Roger channels the animosity of his own father through his embittered disappointment to curse not only his son but the fractal network of relations that made Ted possible. As such, Roger snares everyone around him into the same trap, cursing not only Ted but Veronica and himself.
Patiently, persistently, and with great skill, Langan has constructed a modern ghost story about nightmares and families and fouled hopes and expectations imposed and denied, with a caution at its heart, that no matter how many windows into the soul one has, if the curtains are drawn or we refuse to honestly look, we cannot truly know each other. Or ourselves.