With a preface that invokes classic haunted house novels such as Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House and Stephen King's The Shining as inspirations, Audrey's Door establishes expectations which are almost impossible to meet. However, Sarah Langan's third novel proves itself to be a worthwhile contribution to the history of haunted house stories not only because it's a fun, absorbing read, but also because it uniquely shirks the creepy isolation of a Gothic haunted house for a densely populated and, for some, suffocating, old, and stuffy Manhattan apartment building. Langan's protagonist, the idealistic young architect Audrey Lucas, has recently broken up with her boyfriend and, in the novel's opening pages, moves into a new and suspiciously cheap apartment on the Upper West Side. Audrey is the kind of girl who "tended to shrink in crowds, making herself invisible, because she'd learned from experience that the world was cruel" (p. 11), and the details of her troubled childhood and early adulthood, at the hands of a mentally ill mother, pervade throughout the novel as readers become more and more mired in Audrey's complicated psyche. Her almost paralyzing (and previously untreated) obsessive-compulsive disorder is presented as a holdout from the disruptive nature of her prior experiences, as she and her mother, Betty, were constantly on the move while Audrey was growing up.
Packing and unpacking. Twice a year. Three times. Four. After a while, the drifting frayed Audrey's nerves. She got the idea that with every ditched motel or trailer, she left a tiny part of herself behind and became more like a ghost. Was it so strange that she began scrubbing bathroom tiles, patting her own thighs, and running her fingers along hard objects, just to reassure herself that she was real? (pp. 84-85)
Audrey's new apartment comes to represent her empty, chaotic, and mysteriously unknowable self. The Breviary—the building Audrey moves into—is a holdout from a tradition of Chaotic Naturalism, an architectural style famous in the novel for the way its buildings tended to self-destruct as a result of unsound foundations. In other words, the building itself is inherently untrustworthy, and its creepy tenants do nothing to assuage this pervasive sense of discomfort. They are all incredibly old, except for the one unfortunate girl who becomes Audrey's friend, and there is the sense that they've been there forever. And they want something from Audrey. They are all, of course, followers of Chaotic Naturalism, which is described, outside of its architectural terms, as a religion which ultimately seeks "the demise of the human soul" (p. 189). Audrey, as an architect, has somehow been recruited by the building to build the titular door, a door which will open into another dimension and allow for Chaotic Naturalism to reign supreme over humanity . . . or something.
Audrey begins to feel and act strangely, and she researches Chaotic Naturalism for further clarification about her new home and her fellow residents. She discovers an article which reveals the following:
As we learned from the Freiberg philosophers, it is anathema to his biology for man to embrace chaos. Even if spirits exist (watching us, haunting us, inhabiting alternate universes that subvert time), granting them entrance through the spaces in our minds, or the structure of our homes, and any other doors we might construct, can only result in man's utter destruction. . . . Who is to say that the door, once opened, could ever be closed? And in these alternate worlds, what capacity might man inhabit? Witness? King? Or victim, host, slave. (p. 55)
This is the stuff that makes the novel so interesting: the discourse about how physical structures mimic those that are more internal—or, more explicitly in the case of Audrey's Door, how the Chaotic Naturalism of The Breviary mimics the chaos always lurking at the edges of Audrey's consciousness, which she keeps at bay by succumbing instead to obsessive behaviors. Langan has written an absorbing psychological horror narrative which deepens, rather than explains, the very real and horrific predicament that Audrey finds herself in as a slave to The Breviary, a puppet, a husk to fill with Chaotic Naturalism. The unhinged tenants of The Breviary "had the gift of sight. They saw that fork in the road forty years ago that the rest of us missed, and the paradise lost. They perceived the end of mankind and grew weary of waiting" (p. 284). And that's never a good sign.
Audrey realizes that "straightening things for the people she cared about was her way of protecting them. When everything was in its proper place, there wasn't room for bad stuff to creep through" (p. 149). She is obsessed with filling holes, real and imaginary, in the effort to restore something of herself which has been lost:
Holes form between joists where bricks no longer neatly meet. Smiles become sneers; love skinned leaves the skeleton of lust; and too much sleep unmoors its dreamer. Without the possibility of freedom, the rituals of living are abandoned. Bathing, eating, cleaning, and even language are lost. Things fall apart, and in the vacuum of their absence, madness rears. (p. 371)
Indeed. The question is also asked whether the haunting of The Breviary, its chaos, is even real, or whether all along Audrey has been running from her past, and herself. Confronting her past and the chaos of her present circumstances allows Audrey to think, for once, about the future, whether this is a future in which she builds a creepy door to a demon world or a future in which she can marry her boyfriend and finally be happy. Audrey hanging in the balance between these two possibilities is the central concern of Audrey's Door, and Langan has introduced us to a protagonist worth caring about. There is plenty in the novel to satisfy fans of traditional horror stories: hauntings, demons, corpses, insanity, et cetera. There is also a palpable sense of hopelessness, of surrender to the evil forces which form our worst nightmares, which characterizes much of the horror tradition in film and literature.
But if this seeming hopelessness, the inevitability of despair, is what makes Audrey's Door so compelling, it contributes at the same time to a disappointment with the novel's ending. In his essay "The American Nightmare," the late film critic Robin Wood wrote that "the true subject of the horror genre is the struggle for recognition of all that our civilization represses or oppresses, its reemergence dramatized, as in our nightmares, as an object of horror, a matter for terror, and the happy ending (when it exists) typically signifying the restoration of repression." I would not go so far as to argue that there's no room in the horror genre for the happy ending, but for a novel so explicitly about repression and its protagonist's supposed confrontation of it, the ending of Audrey's Door feels like a failure to acknowledge the things that have been repressed and a missed opportunity to better understand the human consciousness in favor, disappointingly, of further repression: the repression of repression itself. The novel tells us that "there is only so much from which any person can ever heal" (p. 225), but we are led to believe that Audrey will, in spite of it all, succeed. This conclusion ultimately feels too easy, too tidy, and also actually cancels out the novel's earlier project of disorientation, Langan's effortful presentation of a chaotic world mirroring a chaotic self.
My only other complaint about the novel (besides the overabundance of the cringe-inducing verb "plop") is its awkward treatment of homosexuality. Being as there are no gay primary characters, several vaguely offensive mentions of homosexuality become even more noticeable. A few examples: Audrey thinks that her boyfriend looks gay simply because he's wearing a pink shirt, and this inexplicably embarrasses her; Audrey's only gay colleague, described as a "grand, barrel-chested queen," drinks his vodka-tini "with his pinkies outstretched," moans "theatrically," and breaks down in tears because his poodle is sick (p. 130); and Audrey's boss, when she finds her teenage son sleeping in bed with his boyfriend, "might have found Charles [the boyfriend] more palatable, were he not so limp-wristed and fey" (p. 317). I don't really know what Langan is trying to accomplish by accumulating these little details—is she saying that powerful women are preternaturally disgusted by effeminate gay men, or are these brief mentions just haphazard and irresponsible rather than reflective of homophobia?—but they do nothing for the story, and they interrupt scenes which should have been more notable for the work they are actually doing to move the plot forward. But Audrey's Door is, on the whole, a success, and an ambitious one at that. Juggling a neurotic protagonist and a cast of troubled and well-drawn peripheral characters along with a haunted apartment building with a secret past, Sarah Langan has constructed a complex web of subtle links that cohere to present a story about facing ourselves and coming out smiling on the other side, as though through a door: a door which only we can make.
Richard Larson is a graduate student at New York University. His short stories have appeared (or are forthcoming) in ChiZine, Pindeldyboz, Electric Velocipede, Strange Horizons, and others. He blogs at rlarson.typepad.com.