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House of Windows by John Langan

Having read my first draft of this post to the end, I realised that, instead of a postscript, I need an antescript. From this, you will understand this is not a standard review. When thinking about books, it’s customary to discuss them more directly, even when what you write is literary criticism. This piece is rather oblique and, for those of you who worry about such things, it contains no spoilers. Instead and, perhaps, somewhat patronisingly, I have described what the book made me think about and vaguely projected this as if I assume it to be what the author was thinking about while writing.

For those of you who prefer reading posts on sites like this just to find out whether the reviewer thinks the book is any good, you can save yourself the trouble of reading the the end. As first novels go, this is very good. For those who want to know why, read on

The frame is a old-fashioned “club story” — in which one member of a club of adventurers pulls another to one side, offers a brandy and a cigar, and tells a story. This is very Victorian or Edwardian in approach and, in a perverse way, sets the tone of what can only be thought of as a postmodernist ghost story. This requires some explanation. Abandoning strict theory, let’s call the twentieth century a “modern” age in which we rejected the Victorian era that went before it and sought to progress to a new set of cultural ideas through our literature, art, theatre and music. As technology improved, we diversified away from the printing press, and into the new distribution systems of radio, television and now the internet. In the ways we have tried to use these different methods of communication, we were searching for new meanings. Early in the century, we had the harrowing experience of WWI. Millions of lives were thrown away in sterile conflict. We hoped there was a better way of communicating with each other to prevent such a catastrophe from repeating itself. Yet, no matter what political stance we took — whether the appeasement of the British or the isolationism of the US — future war was not to be denied.

This disturbed our certainties. The Victorians had prided themselves on the strength of their beliefs. They were invincible in trade and combat. After two world wars, we recognised that too high a price was paid for such certainty. We moved away from omniscience, and embraced relativism and subjectivism. Whereas the Victorian ghost was a practical manifestation of evil, intent upon causing harm and, even, threatening the Empire, the modernist ghost was a symptom of our own psychological insecurities. We were haunted as much by ourselves as by spirits or creatures from another dimension.

In a new century, we now move beyond modernism and look for a more coherent view of ourselves in the world. To do this, we use a kind of archaeology of the past, interweaving the fiction and ideas from earlier generations into our current discourse, allowing the past to illuminate the present. In writing this, I am borrowing the ideas of Michel Foucault and others who have helped crystalise the process, enriching our understanding of what we now think and believe by reinterpreting what we know, or do not know, of the past.

What’s so particularly fascinating about House of Windows (published by Night Shade Books, 2009) is that it becomes a form of postmodernist parable in which the two key characters mine the past for information in the hope it will explain what is happening to them. In this archaeological endeavour, they come equipped with the right skills. They are both academics, specialising in literature and, by implication, the postmodernist theories of literary interpretation and semiotics. So when they wish to explore the history of the house, they will search all records, look for contemporary witnesses from whom to collect impressions, and so on. They will interrogate the past. If they wish to know more about how the husband’s son died, they will reconstruct the past through maps, witness statements and physical re-enactment with models. There’s no tool or metaphorical device they will not use to progress their understanding of what happened and is happening.

There are supernatural events. As hopefully objective observers, they do not doubt the evidence of their senses, but this triggers anxiety about how their mental state will be perceived. It’s easy to predict how others will respond should they discuss their experiences. So they remain largely silent until the disclosures made through this novel. That they are willing to suspend disbelief is a sign of their scholarship. They become energised, determined to analyse, and so take control of events. They believe they will resolve matters satisfactorily once they have applied the scientific method, postulating a hypothesis, seeking evidence, interpreting it and reasoning to a conclusion. Such is the hubris of the postmodernist. That this may be genuinely supernatural and so not explicable in human terms, is not something they consider a barrier to eventual understanding.

Thematically, the main interest is in parental relationships. In theory, each generation socialises the next and fashions a new set of people capable of carrying the family fortune and the nation’s wealth to higher levels of prosperity. Except, of course, parental relationships can be seriously dysfunctional and the values that are handed down prove rather different from those intended. So we are invited to judge parents as they relate to their children. Where the focus is on a father, we are asked whether the behaviour of the natural mother and, in one case, the younger stepmother and wife, is a positive force. This is not to say that children are always the victims of their parents. A father may project his own dreams on to his son, hoping he will take up the torch and run further with it. Within reasonable limits, this is a constructive approach to parenting. But a more obsessional academic father may not to see his son’s dyslexia for what it is. When you want so desperately for your son to become a scholar, you are more likely predisposed to see the son’s difficulty in reading as defiance.

So when, for a host of sins, both real and imagined, the father curses the son and casts him out, what effect does this have? Remember, we are dealing with the supernatural here, so we are not restricting effect to physical separation or psychological torment. When the son dies without ever reconciling with the father, there will be guilt for the father to deal with and what from the spirit of the son? Indeed, the real question is what a dead son could do from beyond the grave. As a spirit, could he even find his way home without a map?

This is not a Victorian style of ghost story as in “The Horla” by Guy de Maupassant, nor do we meet a ghost such as Hodgson’s Carnacki might have found. This is not M. R. James nor anything cosmic with tentacles along the lines of H. P. Lovecraft (although there’s a hint the house might be a little like the Witch House). Instead, the house is a metaphor for memories and how we see them. If we were standing inside our heads, think of the eyes as like windows through which we can look out across our memories. At any moment, we might “see” a memory of our children, or a place we visited as a child, or something we imagine. Because we are fallible, memories are rearranged, we reinterpret them and some we forget. So the house might seem to be confusing, perhaps generating the suggestion of different rooms or doors, or being able to access different spaces. If you prefer not to accept this metaphor, think of the “slow glass” stories by Bob Shaw through which we might perceive the past. Why the past? Because that’s the source of the emotions of loss and grief and guilt (although not necessarily in that order).

House of Windows is not a horror story in the traditional sense. It’s far too cerebral and dispassionate for that. Rather it’s a story about relationships which has a supernatural dimension. As first novels go, it succeeds in provoking considerable thought. This is a good thing. I believe this is a harbinger of future greatness. In terms of style, I was reminded of Peter Straub. Langan is not yet that good but, if he strikes a better balance between the ideas and the narrative, I think he might get to that level.

For a review of John Langan’s first collection of short stories, see Mr Gaunt and other uneasy encounters.

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