Thursday, October 22, 2009

Something Worse--
As In Very, Very Good

Sarah Langan’s new novel, Audrey’s Door, begins today, October 22, one hundred and forty eight years ago. It’s the birth of New York City as more than a “way station between the wealthy South and Boston’s aristocracy.” In The New York Herald story that opens this novel, Langan aims for the heart of the American dream—something truly new world, something free of old hierarchies and feudalism—and she finds herself with that something worse than a lie that stands as our reality. The decadence that threatens to consume the protagonists of this novel, as it has consumed generation after generation of New York’s most privileged and those who suffer their wrath (and neglect), threatens the ability of everyone here to even dare to dream. On some level, I think that’s what this and every other ghost story is about—the foolishness of hope, yes, but also its necessity.

Langan’s protagonist, Audrey Lucas, has almost no reason to believe she can persevere against the weight of time and history. Sure, she’s a brilliant architect, who recognizes the genius of the maddening apartment building she’s managed to rent for almost nothing. But she’s also obsessive compulsive, and she’s just broken up with a really decent guy, and her mother’s madness threatens to overtake her any hour of any given day. Though ghost stories are, in the end, all about such personal haunts, Langan has done a beautiful job delivering a great big, unique haunted house, a 110th street apartment building called the Breviary, that gives these ghosts room to ramble.

Many things make Langan distinct from any other writer in the horror genre (and I would argue in any genre). Though she writes the wildest kinds of surrealism--and her modernist leaps jump cliffs that would make Stephen King nervous--she earns it with a remarkable attention to the details of people's lives and exquisite, precise writing. Read the first page or two at the store for a sample of that. Even in the alternative voice of the Herald story, the aside regarding "one of Hearst's Negroes" who "took a bullet to the knee" says volumes about the blind prejudice and recklessness that mark this tainted ground.

But I personally love the little things that suggest Langan knows places too few of those writers touted on NPR and C-SPAN seem to know. When she brightens a mean childhood memory with the line, “On an empty stomach, Ball Park Cheese Dogs make the best meal in the world,” she says way more that ties me to this novel than I can adequately convey. In the same sense, in a particularly horrific revelation, she also finds what's funny about the blind impulses that drive the most malevolent of these characters forward: “In killing the superintendent, they’d murdered the only person willing to take out the trash.”

The opening of this book introduces us to that superintendent, a kind-hearted character named Edgardo who just can’t seem to catch a break in his halting conversation with his new prospective tenant. This is one of those beautifully wrought passages, where nothing should work, but it all does. Audrey Lucas is an almost unlikably round protagonist from the beginning—thinking him alternately clueless and lecherous and cruel, but finally realizing that he’s probably a decent guy. That last impulse is the closest to right, and she has a hard time finding it throughout the novel (as we all do in real life).

That’s what makes Sarah Langan so special. She knows what a ghost story is about—isolation and promises doomed by the past—but she also knows what makes such stories haunt deep in the heart. For a ghost story to reach that place, it has to be unflinchingly true in terms of the lives we lead every day.

Langan creates real people who interact in real ways—and Audrey’s boyfriend Saraub; her miserable boss, Jill; and her sad neighbor, Jayne, all ring true. There’s plenty of horror here—both in the real tragedies of these peoples’ lives and in some of the things that happen to them. They certainly all have to face real horror by the time "Audrey’s door" begins to open.

But any writer can terrorize characters and readers on some level. I actually think cheap horror is about as easy a trick as cheap sentimentality. Want to make someone cry? Hurt a kitten. Want to revolt someone? Dwell on that pain. We see tons of that kind of sadism in our popular news media, let alone our horror stories.

But horror fiction has the potential to do something more—something King can do, as can Joe Hill, and as does Sarah Langan time and again. Horror fiction helps us face places extraordinarily uncomfortable, some part of the psyche more disturbing than the fear of pain or death. Audrey’s Door asks us to contemplate the loss of all sense of order and justice and reason, and to compound that with the threat of the loss of individual integrity. What if the only things that gave life meaning became the most dangerous threat to that meaning? What if the things that make Audrey Lucas special threaten to bring her world, and the worlds of those she loves, to an end?

I can’t say much more without giving away a beautiful, rich and complex story. I will say the book's scary, in that shadows crawling way I most love. I also have to say that Sarah Langan has earned my trust. That’s why I’ll read everything she writes and no doubt blog about it. Like any good horror writer, she does terrible things in her writing, but she also makes sure they're all worthwhile. She cares about the people in her stories, and she cares about the reader. That compassion makes her more than a fine writer; it makes her important.

My previous Sarah Langan blogs--
Wednesday, January 23, 2008

A Keeper Indeed

She’s done it again. Sarah Langan's first novel, The Keeper, was more than a great horror debut--it set a bar that sorely seems to be missing in most contemporary fiction, much less horror fiction. Though he can't play a part in a movie without hamming it up, Stephen King's downright understated and realistic on the page. His strength as a writer stems largely from how well he seems to know people and the way his surrealism stays so firmly anchored in the world we know. Langan has this same pitch perfect ear, with a voice and vision comparable to King but distinctly valuable.

H.G. Well's famously said something like 9/10ths of fantastic writing must be rooted in a strict adherence to reality. I think that has more than a little to do with why the best horror writers manage to create realities that feel more genuine than most, ahem, respectable fiction. I know this teacher at the heart of the novel, a woman even her aesthetically disabled physician recognizes as beautiful but who only sees herself in terms of the gap between her teeth, her lisp, and her abandonment by the two most important men in her life.

And then there's the young Romeo and Juliet of the story, Maddie and Enrique. They are not romanticized as perfect kids, but they aren't ridiculed either. They are fumbling innocents from opposite sides of the tracks discovering sex one awkward step at a time. They are sweet, and they are selfish; they are real.That's what makes the horror of this story so shattering.

Figuratively and literally, Langan has mutated the monster that all but destroyed the working class town, Bedford, in her first novel and delivered it as a viral contagion on the more affluent neighboring community, Corpus Christi. And this second trip to the apocalypse is, if anything, a darker ride.For one thing, it's scarier. The Keeper holds a dear place in my heart for the beauty of its vision. But it was more of a ghost story, with that genre's tendency to find hope in a reckoning with the past.

The Missing doesn't offer hope, at least not an unqualified hope. The reader takes heart in the fact that people make it to the end of the book, and in the sometimes very small ways they hang onto their humanity against insurmountable odds. The beauty of this book lies in the quality of the fear. Time after time, sympathetic characters have to face down all but unimaginable horrors, dealing with the predators that have come under the control of this virus. They're as sick as those folks dying off in the first two hundred pages of The Stand, but they're also dangerous--they don't talk right, they don't walk right, they don't move right, and they somehow think as one and know their victim's darkest secrets and fears.

Most horror has a couple of good chills that stand out--Langan keeps them coming fast and furious without such moments losing their power.The scariest thing of all may be just how good she is.

My earlier review of The Keeper:

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Where the River Runs Black

Happening upon Sarah Langan’s debut novel, The Keeper, at my corner grocery store has turned out to be a happy accident I can only compare to my “discovery” of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot at a bus stop when I was 12 years old. And I feel doubly blessed right now to have read The Keeper on the heels of Bentley Little’s The Burning, two horror stories that also happen to be that most exquisite and rare find in the genre—distinctly American ghost stories.

Key to this is that this book begins with a quote from Bruce Springsteen’s “Independence Day” and manages to live up to that song’s haunted naturalism. The characters in this novel are real people living in the real America at the dawn of the 21st Century. Like so many Americans, these are characters who were born just a few decades ago into a society that promised, expected and planned for only the continued economic expansion that defined the American identity up to that point. And now those manufacturing jobs that served as the vehicle for that expansion have been automated away and become globally outsourced--leaving people who have given their lives to the company confused and betrayed and haunted by what never will be.

In this case, Langan focuses on the small town of Bedford, Maine, and a paper mill, but whether we’re from my ex-oil town in Oklahoma or Whirlpool’s lame duck home in Benton Harbor, Michigan, we know the scenario all too well, and that makes this setting universal.Even more important for satisfying fiction, particularly something as subjective as a ghost story, the focus on strong characters underscores the link between such political betrayals and our most personal secrets.

Rich, vivid characters abound in this novel—each with their own heroic qualities and each with dreadful failures that they can’t ever quite shake. All of them are haunted by the Marley family, particularly Susan Marley, a beautiful, preternaturally gifted girl who tries to save her family from itself but winds up all but destroying it and taking the town along for good measure.

Though Langan shows herself to be a writer with an unflinching ability to savage her characters and fling her readers right along with them into the abyss, she has the absolutely necessary counterweight that makes King and only a handful of other writers, never mind writers of horror, so special. She knows people, and she knows them too well to sell false hope or, an even easier trap in our age, to fall into an easy cynicism. Where this book ultimately goes, no reader is likely to expect, but it’s a conclusion that comes from a knowing vision and trust in the integrity of her characters.

Ultimately, what I think I like best about great horror stories and ghost stories in particular is the way they counter our daily inoculations against reflection. The best ghost stories are, almost without exception, rooted in a reflective quiet. That’s that psychic space necessary for those things that have their reasons for not staying buried to come out and play, and Langan delivers a sprawling universe of such spaces. Even during some of the most apocalyptic horrors that threaten to run the book right off the rails in its final third, the prose has a Bradbury-like whisper to it that serves to keep the reader close.

In another song from the same album as “Independence Day,” Springsteen asks, “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?” The Keeper gives us a good look at the maw of that “something worse.” It has to. Some things will never rest until they are dealt with head on.Of course none of this would matter if Langan didn’t do it so well she’s only left me wanting more.Now if I could just get over the genius of such a title for a debut—not only accurately describing the book but the woman who wrote it.
Posted by Danny Alexander at 6:48 AM 0 comments