The ability to really terrify readers without resorting to obscene blood and guts is a rare one – who has it?
I am a huge scaredy-cat (can’t ever watch the nasty bits in horror films; spend a lot of them screaming) but for some reason I love being terrified, probably ever since a childhood reading of The Witches led to it having to be hidden at the top of the cupboard so it couldn’t get me. It wasn’t the Grand High Witch who scared me, it was the witch who stands at the bottom of the tree trying to tempt the boy narrator down: “‘Come out of that tree, little boy,’ she said, ‘and I shall give you the most exciting present you’ve ever had…'”
Horror is still one of my guilty pleasures today (in fact most of my reading is guilty pleasures, so perhaps I should just admit that and move on), so I eagerly snapped up a copy of Sarah Langan‘s Audrey’s Door after seeing that it had won the Bram Stoker award for best novel a week-and-a-half ago. I’d read Langan’s debut, The Keeper, back in 2006 and been thoroughly frightened by Susan Marley (“she lives in their dreams; they die in hers”) and by Langan’s portrait of the decaying, depressing town of Bedford.
I wasn’t quite as impressed with Audrey’s Door, the story of architect Audrey Lucas. Audrey has split up with her boyfriend, Saraub, and has moved into The Breviary, an Upper West Side mansion block built in the style of Chaotic Naturalism – an all but extinct crank architecture/religion which drives its inhabitants (currently a horde of plastic-surgeried, very creepy ancients) mad. The apartment she’s taken was formerly inhabited by a woman who murdered her four children, and Audrey quickly starts to dream – of the children’s deaths, of a man with slicked-back black hair who urges her to “build a door”. When she wakes up, she finds that she’s been building a door in her sleep.
Langan’s characterisation is excellent – Audrey, an obsessive compulsive with a bipolar mother, is far more complex and believable than many horror heroes (Shaun Hutson, James Herbert: I’m looking at you.) She ramps up the tension and the scare-factor without resorting to gross-out scenes (again, Mr Hutson, I don’t think I’ll ever get over Slugs, nor over Conrad Williams’s The Unblemished, which so horrified/disgusted me I had to leave it on a bus because I couldn’t bear to take it home). And she delivers on the reality of the evil at the heart of The Breviary – something that a good number of horror novels fail to do (The Tommyknockers, for example).
But I think the novel was spoiled, a bit, for me by the fact that I’d recently read Shirley Jackson‘s The Haunting of Hill House and Ira Levin‘s Rosemary’s Baby. Langan names both of these books, as well as Stephen King’s The Shining, as inspiration in her preface – “I hope I did right by these guys, and by New York, the city that stole my heart”. But her own ancient tenants with an evil plan just felt to me like pale imitations of Levin’s, and her crazy-architecture wonkiness of Jackson’s.
Having said that, Audrey’s Door was easily scary enough to make me utilise my tried and tested technique of hiding it between two “good” books in order to stop the bad getting out. The Haunting of Hill House, though, had to be left at work, it was so terrifying – it’s a ghost story which can’t actually be beaten, in my opinion. I’d love to hear your recommendations for the most frightening book ever – as of this evening I am no longer home alone, and therefore brave enough to tackle the worst you can come up with.