Filler content with architecture gone bad

Sarah Langan is one of my favourite writers in the horror field, and here is my review of the simply stunning Audrey’s Door from Black Static #17:-


Sarah Langan

(Harper paperback, 432pp, $7.99)

After a lifetime of struggle – against OCD, poverty, her mentally unstable mother Betty – Audrey Lucas finds herself an up and coming architect at a prestigious New York firm. She leaves boyfriend Saraub and goes to live in The Breviary, an apartment block built in the 19th century and the only still standing example of the controversial school of architecture known as Chaotic Naturalism. The building is owned by the descendants of the families who originally built it, and for some reason they seem anxious to have Audrey in their midst. Her apartment was the scene of a recent tragedy, a mother murdering her four children and then killing herself. Audrey starts to have strange dreams, and all her old problems are exacerbated by The Breviary, which appears to have a will of its own and a terrible purpose for her – she is to build a door.

It’s hard to know how to characterise this novel. Undoubtedly it’s a haunted house story, but one with echoes of The Wicker Man, as if the residents of Summer Isle had been transplanted to a rundown apartment building in New York, and also an ‘end of days’ feel and underlying decadence reminiscent of Poe’s Masque of the Red Death. In The Breviary Langan has created one of the great haunted houses of horror, a building to stand alongside The Overlook Hotel and Hill House, while Chaotic Naturalism, which is as much a religion as it is school of architecture, invites comparisons with Leiber’s Megapolisomancy. There’s a tension between the horrific events which have taken place in the building and the grand principles which informed its design, the ostentation of The Breviary’s wealthy inhabitants in the past, as recapitulated in the newspaper clippings and related items which introduce each section, and the squalor of the present day in which waste accumulates in the basement simply because none of the tenants can be bothered to take out the garbage. And wafting through the corridors, colluding in the madness of the building’s residents and egging them on to ever greater excess, is the spirit of architect Schermerhorn, or perhaps this is just a form that the building itself takes to forward its agenda.

The Breviary is, in some very real sense, a character in this book, one with feelings of its own and a will to survive at any cost. Audrey Lucas is its antithesis, the only one who can realise the building’s dreams or stifle them at birth. Langan spares her character no humiliation, as her OCD runs riot, as she loses control of bodily functions, as her life in the outside world unravels and The Breviary closes in around her, its walls becoming a prison, a tomb, and even Audrey’s dreams are invaded. But as Langan fills in her back story, the years spent with poor, mad Betty, it becomes obvious that there is steel in Audrey Lucas, forged in the fires of her troubled past. The things that make her vulnerable to The Breviary’s evil are also the things that give her the strength to resist.

While the conflict between Audrey and The Breviary is at the book’s core, there’s a wealth of other stuff to be enjoyed, the kind of material that in the hands of lesser writers would have supplied the mother lode for half a dozen novels. Paramount is the superb supporting cast, from the omnipresent Betty, a mother who comes good in the final moments, to documentary maker Saraub, who loves Audrey but is afraid of expressing that love, through to boss Jill, the mother of a cancer child, and friend Janey, the only one to have escaped The Breviary’s attention (except she doesn’t in the end). They’re all perfectly drawn on the page, each one with distinguishing traits and characteristics that bring them to compelling life and force the reader’s suspension of disbelief at the fantastic events in which they are embroiled. And then there are the tenants, capering through the corridors of The Breviary in a purposeless bacchanal that they hope will never end, while hanging over all, but only revealed in the final pages, is a harrowing and original vision of an outside reality that is both similar to and entirely different from our own.

This is Langan’s third book and it’s already won the Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a Novel, deservedly so. It’s a brave and breathtaking story, the best work yet from one of the most talented writers currently engaged in the horror field, and if you have any interest at all in the genre then it’s a book you’re going to want to read.

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