Sarah Langan’s Audrey’s Door runs the border between psychological thriller and psychotically vivid ghost story. Each character rides the arc of their own personal Bosch painting of a breakdown. The reader descends a corkscrew track that presses with increasing speed to full insanity. At the novel’s opening, we see Audrey Lucas as a likeable country kid who beat the odds. She has overcome an impoverished youth with a mentally ill mother, put herself through Columbia, and become an elite Manhattan architect. Her surpluses of wit and vision trump the efforts of her silver-spooned colleagues to stifle her rise.
But her vision comes with a price. Second guessing the ‘realness’ of her relationship with her documentary film maker fiancée Saraub, she moves into The Breviary, a historic New York apartment building. The Breviary stands as one of the few remaining examples of an enigmatic school of architecture called Chaotic Naturalism. At first the move looks like an effort to find herself. She picks up on the building’s details, its ornate windows, strangely slanted walls, and the beauty of its impractical mathematics.
The building itself, however, has other plans. With tasteful nods to The Haunting of Hill House, The Shining, Poe, Lovecraft, and any who have built on the conventions of the haunted house story, Audrey’s Door unveils an excruciatingly detailed parallel between the breakdown of the mind and the breakdown of a dwelling. Audrey begins to have grotesque visions of the building’s wealthy and decaying denizens. She also suffers from an assault of memories of her former life in trailer parks and her mother’s bizarre version of an illness that appears to be a mix of formication and delusional parasitosis (being perpetually pursued by swarms of ants).
With a sense of imagery matching the most exquisite of Damien Hirst’s sculptures of glass encased guts, Audrey’s Door offers an intimidating portrait of the high price of the mind’s failure. The gruesome face of ruined potential stares at us through the window of Audrey’s step-by-step breakdown. The author delivers it all in a setting skillfully wrought with intimate details of daily life in New York City. While attempting to overcome major obstacles, Audrey finds herself simultaneously harried by the minor problems we don’t often see in more romanticized versions of the city. It’s one thing to get attacked by the bloody-faced dead. It’s another to ride on the subway, be subject to a spilling, barfing, sweating, fabric-and-flesh-rending daily commute, and then have to come home and still deal with the bloody-faced dead.
Without spoiling too much of the story arc, I will only say that the resolution of the novel’s narrative puts an original twist on the haunted house’s eternal thirst for implosion. Depth of character combined with the ability to stare eye to eye with emotional bleakness earns Audrey’s Door a place among the best of American ghost stories.