Pennsylvania-based author and poet Oliver C. Seneca recently contacted me by email and offered to send along an ebook of his latest novel, Faces in a Window, for me to review. Of course I agreed, because hey, who am I to turn down free horror books?
Faces in a Window, published by Sunbury Press in late March of 2022, is Seneca’s second novel; his first was When the Sky Goes Dark, released in 2019. From the description of that novel on his website, I gathered that it was something akin to an apocalyptic story, and it sounded pretty interesting, though the premise of Faces in a Window is a much more intimate, ghostly type of thing, which is more in line with my own tastes.
I will say from the outset that Faces in a Window is a solid, well-written novel with some spooky imagery and a sort of old-fashioned, autumn-in-New-England vibe that I found quite pleasing. I felt the book did have a couple of issues, though, which I’ll elaborate on in a bit.
The novel gets off to a rousing and intriguing start, with an elderly man driving like a bat out of Hell away from a school where he had been teaching. There is a reference to another teacher from the school who had recently died of a mysteriously aggressive form of cancer. Then the old man sees a vision of some charred-looking people in his rearview mirror, at which point he plows into a tree and goes flying through the windshield to meet his end.
After this attention-grabbing prologue, we’re introduced to our two main protagonists. One is Ian Evans, a laid-back young history teacher who has just taken his first full-time teaching position at a Catholic middle school called St. Stephen’s in Delaware. When we first meet Ian, he is in the throes of a horrifying nightmare in which he is racing through the halls of a school that is burning down all around him, seeing creepy figures in the gloom and hearing someone calling for help.
When he awakens, it’s the actual first day of school, and he figures the nightmare is just a symptom of his first-timer jitters. Ian really enjoys teaching, and plans to stay on at St. Stephen’s for a bit to get some experience before going back for his Master’s and hopefully getting a job at the college level eventually.
The second main character is also a teacher, a pretty but slightly anxious young woman named Michelle Thompson. She’s taken a job teaching religion at the school, and is also at something of a crossroads in her life, living with her aunt and uncle in this small town in Delaware until she can get a firmer grasp on what she wants to do with herself. This is also her first full-time teaching position.
It turns out that these two teachers were hired at St. Stephen’s because the two beloved teachers they’re replacing both died over the summer; one from cancer, and one in a car crash. Both Ian and Michelle are worried that they won’t be able to live up to the sterling reputations of their previous counterparts.
But as it happens, neither of them have any cause to worry; or at least, not about their teaching prowess. The students love them both, and the rest of the faculty are almost pathologically friendly, lavishing them with frequent praise about what a good job they’re doing. This is nice, though Ian and Michelle both find this slightly unnerving, as is the fact that every other teacher at the school is older than dirt. They do manage to befriend one member of the staff in particular, a janitor by the name of Rick, who is also elderly, but genuinely good-natured and in possession of a treasure trove of knowledge about the school’s mysterious past.
As the story goes on, the chapters alternate back and forth from Ian’s perspective to Michelle’s. The pair begin to develop a sort of chaste romance, but they also independently experience several alarming and seemingly paranormal occurrences at the school, such as seeing what appears to be blackened, burned figures, or sometimes a very stern-looking nun who also doesn’t look to be all that alive anymore. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, they both have separate nightmares in which they see their own deaths or funerals. Despite their burgeoning relationship, though, it still takes until more than halfway through the book before they finally confess their experiences to one another and try to figure out what do.
As I mentioned, this was a solid read, but there was something about it tonally that didn’t really resonate with me, though I’m having a hard time putting my finger on exactly what it was. For one thing, I got the distinct impression that the story was supposed to be taking place in the 1950s or 1960s, even though it was actually set in the present day. Even though the characters said “fuck” and “shit” where appropriate and made references to modern things, in other words, the way they talked and interacted with one another otherwise sounded very prim and somewhat stilted. I realize that the story was taking place at a Catholic school, and that most of the characters were old, so maybe that could account for some of the outmoded vibe, but Ian and Michelle were like that too, and they were only in their late 20s. I wasn’t raised with any religion at all and don’t know that many people who are religious, so maybe it’s just me, but every character in this sounded as though they were really sheltered. The way that Ian and Michelle’s relationship progressed, for example, reminded me of a teenage dating PSA from the 1950s. It was very odd.
The dialogue also kinda suffered from this same prudishness, and also from a bit of pointlessness as well. The way the story is laid out, the scenes jump along from the first day of school, to other significant school events, to conversations between Ian and Michelle as they begin “dating,” and to holidays leading up to Christmas. And the bulk of these conversations is just sort of prattling for the sake of it, bringing up minor details about the characters’ lives that don’t really have any impact on the story or never have any significance to the larger themes or narrative.
The scenes in the middle part of the book, moreover, also start to get slightly repetitive, as Ian has a dream about burned ghosts again, or Michelle sees the creepy nun again. There is a reason behind the haunting and why it manifests the way it does, but I just wish there had been more of a ramping up of ghostly phenomena rather than just repeated episodes of one of the characters seeing variations of the same thing.
All in all, this was a pretty entertaining, cursed-school type story with a spooky autumn and winter setting and some eerily described visuals. Characterization, dialogue, and plotting could have been better, but I had a good time with it overall, and would recommend it to anyone who wants a straightforward, simple, and somewhat old-fashioned ghost story to read during Halloween or any other time you want to feel some vintage-style chills.
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.