098 – Audrey’s Door by Sarah Langan

Purchase Audrey's Door at Amazon.com 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…
All right guys, woo! Here we are, first female protagonist of Spooktacular 2014, and she didn’t disappoint.

Audrey’s Door is a bizarre little book that I found looking for contemporary female horror authors, and it sounded the most promising of Sarah Langan’s bibliography. A creepy apartment, a protagonist who can’t tell fantasy from reality, a door to who knows where. It’s another one of those intriguing concepts that probably won’t have a great solution, but you have to give it a shot anyway, because maybe, just maybe, it might.

I mean, okay, it doesn’t, but Audrey’s Door succeeds in other ways that counterbalance the batshit ending. This thing is at its heart a character study that sort of begrudgingly gives in to a weird dimensional horror finale, but the character stuff is so strong, it’s almost worth it. It tells the story of Audrey Lucas, a gifted young architect who struggles to cope with obsessive compulsive disorder, and the memory of a traumatic childhood with her bipolar mother. At the start of the story, she’s just broken up with her fiance, Saraub, and is on the hunt for an affordable apartment in which to start her life over. She ends up in the Breviary, which is cheap, beautiful, and demonic, but that’s actually not all that important for like the first three-quarters of the book. I mean, the haunting stuff is there, but it’s less the central focus of the narrative as it is a catalyst for the fleshing out of Audrey’s character and backstory, which is…actually kind of nice.

What I liked most about Audrey’s Door was that the characters felt incredibly real, and their motivations were very clearly established and explored. There’s no such thing as “because the plot says so” in Audrey’s Door. You understand in painful detail why these characters are making the choices that they’re making, and sometimes, it’s fucking heartbreaking.

That’s the second thing I liked about Audrey’s Door. The pain was real, man. The story focuses a lot on Audrey’s rocky relationships with her ex-fiance and her mother, Betty, and how the scars left by the latter affect the trajectory of the former. Complicated, painful mother-daughter relationships hit me hard, and this one left a welt. There’s just so much depth and complex emotion here, it’s never as simple as “I love you” or “I hate you” or “I need you” or “I don’t want you anymore”. It’s often all of those things at once, and you understand why it’s all of those things at once. I dunno, I guess I just don’t see this kind of emotional exploration in a lot of the books I read, and this shit really resonated. I liked it.

It’s not just Audrey who gets a good cry, though. Almost all of the characters are very well-drawn, even when you aren’t expecting them to be. Both Saraub and Audrey’s boss, Jill, get a chance to narrate a couple of chapters, and they’re well-utilized in developing the character’s perspectives. It’s interesting to see the events in the novel through occasionally opposing viewpoints, and you’re better able to identify with and become invested in the POV characters. This is super important, because if you don’t care about these people overcoming their hang-ups and insecurities, or about the outcome of their relationship, you’re going to be pretty bored for most of the book.

Luckily, I was pretty invested. I enjoyed the way the book unfolded, for the most part. It does a very good job of toeing that line that the synopsis promises, where you don’t know if the haunting is real or the product of the protagonists’ imagination, because while all of the character development and drama is going on, we do get a few of the requisite haunted apartment episodes: weird dreams, erratic behavior, blackouts. The catch is that almost all of the episodes have pretty reasonable psychological triggers, and line up fairly well with Audrey’s established mental issues.

I mentioned earlier that Audrey has OCD, and while I don’t know how accurate a portrayal it is, the book seemed pretty respectful. Like much of Audrey’s character, it made sense in the context of her life, and made sense as a contributing factor to that context.

All that being said, I will admit, there were times I drifted into boredom. There’s a long stretch in the middle where Audrey’s completely cut off from all of haunted house stuff, and the premise that the book was sold to us on is completely absent. Granted, it makes sense in the overall arc of the book, because it develops all of the characters and relationships and sets up everything for the intensely weird finale, but it’s a dry interlude with narry a ghost in sight, and it certainly stops any mounting tension surrounding the haunted apartment part of the story dead.

As though to make up for the long lull, though, the moment that Audrey gets back from her ghost-less journey outside of the apartment, shit kicks into high gear. Again, it’s well-structured because the resurgence of the haunting could easily be attributed to her vulnerable emotional state and drug use, but before long, the ambiguity on that front goes right out the window. We dive face-first in to some David Lynch-ian weirdness.

I haven’t really talked much about the horror aspects, and that’s kinda because they weren’t super impressive. The prologue of the book talks about how the author was influenced by The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Haunting of Hill House, and that’s all very clear, because the horror-y bits of the story are like a Frankenstein’s monster of those, taking the most iconic plot elements and stitching them together into something new. I mean, it’s an interesting idea, and it’s well integrated into Audrey’s emotional journey, but it’s not scary. It can be kind of intense, but it tries to be scary by way of bizarre imagery and behavior, and while that works in a delirious mindfuck acid-tripping carnival ride kind of way, it’s not actually scary.

This isn’t to say the book isn’t horrifying. It actually does have atmospheric moments of terrible anticipation and dread, they’re just not ghost-related. For me, the horror came from discovering all of the terrible things Audrey and her mother have done to one another, all of the choices they’ve made and the way it’s impacted their lives. The horror came from watching Audrey and Saraub make a mess of their lives, build it back up, and then wreck it all to shit again. The literal stuff can’t hold a candle to that, honestly.

So while the last hundred pages or so are more focused on the haunting/possession/door/murder/monster stuff, it’s probably the part that works the least for me. There’s some effort throughout the book made to develop the history of the Breviary and the weird religion/architectural style that inspired it, mostly in the form of info-dump news articles, but that crap I found boring and totally skippable. The ending is still compelling in a where-is-this-shit-going sort of way, but the explanation is silly, and the monsters are hard to take seriously. Luckily, amidst all the weirdness and monster-fighting, we get a pretty satisfying conclusion to all of the characters’ emotional arcs, so once again, at least the character stuff is there to save the day.

While I’d like to say cheesy horror is the extent of the book’s issues, it’s unfortunately not. There are moments of vague racism and homophobia – a lot of it is tied to the individuals’ perspectives, and it does obviously condemn a few specific instances of racism and misogyny, but it’s hard to get over some of the stereotypical characters and wrong-headed ideas coming out of characters we’re ostensibly supposed to like. I mean, there’s a guy that Audrey refers to through the course of the novel as just “The Haitian”, Saraub drops the fuckin’ t-word in there at least once, Jill wonders if her lackluster mothering skills have turned her son gay, and the one active gay character that we get is a musical theater aficionado who can’t stop talking about his poodles. I mean, for Chrissakes, this thing was published in 2012, so I’m not sure why it reads like something from 1996. Also, fat people? Totally gross, yo.

On the upside, Saraub is an Indian man, and he and his family were not horrible stereotypes. His mother was harsh, but she had an arc, and the rest of the family ended up being better than Saraub gave them credit for. Plus, I really liked the way the relationship between Audrey and Jill progressed. At first it seemed like they were destined to run the Women-Can’t-Get-Along course, but Langan subverted that, at least. The two ended up bonding and being supportive of one another, and the book finished in a really optimistic place, so I appreciated that.

All in all, I liked Audrey’s Door fairly well. It felt meatier than most of the things I’ve read lately, and I enjoyed reading about people with pain whose problems are deeply rooted and complicated and aren’t easy to fix. It wasn’t as scary as I would have hoped, and I don’t know if I was quite captivated enough to seek out another Langan novel, but it was an interesting experience, at least.

three stars


 

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