Monday, October 29, 2012

Review: Audrey's Door by Sarah Langan

Audrey’s Door by Sarah Langan
Published: Harper & Row, 2009
Awards Won: Stoker Award

The Book:

Built on the Upper West Side, the elegant Breviary claims a regal history. But despite 14B's astonishingly low rental price, the recent tragedy within its walls has frightened away all potential tenants . . . except for Audrey Lucas.

No stranger to tragedy at thirty-two-a survivor of a fatherless childhood and a mother's hopeless dementia, Audrey is obsessively determined to make her own way in a city that often strangles the weak. But is it something otherworldly or Audrey's own increasing instability that's to blame for the dark visions that haunt her . . . and for the voice that demands that she build a door? A door it would be true madness to open . . .”

It’s October again, and that means I’m branching out, once again, to horror!  Audrey’s Door is the October reading selection for Calico Reaction’s Theme Park book club, so it seemed like a good choice for a Halloween-themed review.

My Thoughts:

Audrey’s Door was a fairly standard haunted house story.  Audrey was lured into moving into a home that she thought was too good to be true, and she soon found that she was right.  I don’t think that this story aspired to be especially new or different, but rather to be an entertaining new addition to the rich tradition of modern haunted house stories.  The writing style was rather plain and casual, and I felt like exclamation points and capital emphasis were employed a little too often.  Throughout the story, Langan included fictional historical documents, such as newspaper articles, which slowly built up the history of the Breviary, the haunted house of the story.  Though some of these historical snippets were pretty predictable (suicides, eerie occurrences, etc.), I was very interested in the details of the building and its architecture.

The source of the evil within the building was grounded in the idea of a cult and architectural style known as Chaotic Naturalism.  The style, which avoided straight lines and tended towards ‘chaotic’ structures, kind of reminded me of the design of Kunst Haus Wien. Chaotic Naturalism was suggested to tap into the primitive, evil side of humanity, whereas Kunst Haus Wien had more of a positive, back-to-nature vibe.  I thought it was kind of interesting that both the fictional and actual architecture seem to be about reaching into the natural state of humanity, though the Kunst Haus saw this as psychologically healthy.  In the end, I was skeptical of the dark influences of Chaotic Naturalism, but I really enjoyed all of the fictional documentation Langan had of the movement’s development. I think, in a haunted house story, the house itself is essentially a main character, and I enjoyed how Langan developed the ‘character’ of the Breviary.

The other, human characters also had quite interesting histories and personalities, though I did not find them altogether likable.    Even though I didn’t really like the characters, I don’t think it affected my enjoyment of the novel.  I have a certain detachment from mainstream horror characters, probably because I expect them to suffer and/or die pretty horribly.  Rather than really sympathizing with the characters, I tend to simply observe them.  This worked well for Audrey and her boyfriend, Saraub.  Audrey’s personality problems could be traced back to many things, such as her mental health problems and her upbringing by a nomadic woman suffering from debilitating mental illness.  However, she was still an enormous jerk to pretty much everyone she met.  Saraub was not nearly as unfriendly as Audrey, but he had his moments. I appreciated that Langan took the time to add in some development for side characters, but their subplots often seemed completely irrelevant to the main thrust of the story. Even though I didn’t feel emotionally invested in the characters, and some of the subplots didn’t seem to lead anywhere, I was still interested to see what would happen next.    

While I enjoyed the story, and it certainly kept my interest, I’m not sure that I could say it worked for me as a horror story.  From me, this is not exactly a criticism, since I don’t especially like being frightened (That’s one reason I rarely read horror!).  I tried to analyze why I didn’t find the story scary, and I think it comes down to the handling of the supernatural elements.  In the kinds of horror movies that have left me terrified of entering my own bathroom (This is totally normal.  Don’t tell me otherwise.), the supernatural elements tend to be woven in and escalated very gradually.  In that way, a sense of realism is established before anything especially outlandish happens.  I think that this connection of the horror to that initial sense of realism, which is tenuously maintained, is actually what leaves me in terror.  In Audrey’s Door, there was very little time spent establishing normality before the haunting began, and Audrey started having full-sensory visions almost immediately thereafter.  I think the historical documents were intended to establish the sense of realism necessary for fear, but that didn’t really work for me.  Of course, other people’s reactions may be entirely different than mine, but Audrey’s Door was more of a somewhat interesting story to me than a spine-tingling one.

My Rating: 3/5

Audrey’s Door seems to be a pretty standard addition to the tradition of modern haunted house stories.  The writing is pretty plain, and some tics distracted my attention, like the overuse of exclamation points.  I enjoyed the creative and entertaining history of the haunted house, known as the Breviary, as it is uncovered through fictional historical documents.  I was especially intrigued by the cult and architectural style of Chaotic Naturalism.  The main characters, Audrey and her boyfriend Saraub, are not especially likable, but they have interesting personalities and life experiences.  I didn’t find the story to be especially frightening, possibly due to the heavy hand with which the supernatural elements are applied to the story.  Overall, I thought it was a fairly entertaining novel that would probably be enjoyed by readers in the mood for haunted houses.

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