When the normal window destruction messages are thrown for a loop

Raymond Chen


Last time, I alluded to weirdness that can result in the normal cycle of destruction messages being thrown out of kilter.

Commenter Adrian noted that the WM_GETMINMAXINFO message arrives before WM_NCCREATE for top-level windows. This is indeed unfortunate but (mistake or not) it’s been that way for over a decade and changing it now would introduce serious compatibility risk.

But that’s not the weirdness I had in mind.

Some time ago I was helping to debug a problem with a program that was using the ListView control, and the problem was traced to the program subclassing the ListView control and, through a complicated chain of C++ objects, ending up attempting to destroy the ListView control while it was already in the process of being destroyed.

Let’s take our new scratch program and illustrate what happens in a more obvious manner.

class RootWindow : public Window
 RootWindow() : m_cRecurse(0) { }
 void CheckWindow(LPCTSTR pszMessage) {
  if (IsWindow(m_hwnd)) {
   OutputDebugString(TEXT(” – window still exists\r\n”));
  } else {
   OutputDebugString(TEXT(” – window no longer exists\r\n”));
 HWND m_hwndChild;
 UINT m_cRecurse;

LRESULT RootWindow::HandleMessage( UINT uMsg, WPARAM wParam, LPARAM lParam) { … case WM_NCDESTROY: CheckWindow(TEXT(“WM_NCDESTROY received”)); if (m_cRecurse < 2) { m_cRecurse++; CheckWindow(TEXT(“WM_NCDESTROY recursing”)); DestroyWindow(m_hwnd); CheckWindow(TEXT(“WM_NCDESTROY recursion returned”)); } PostQuitMessage(0); break;

case WM_DESTROY: CheckWindow(TEXT(“WM_DESTROY received”)); if (m_cRecurse < 1) { m_cRecurse++; CheckWindow(TEXT(“WM_DESTROY recursing”)); DestroyWindow(m_hwnd); CheckWindow(TEXT(“WM_DESTROY recursion returned”)); } break; … }

We add some debug traces to make it easier to see what is going on. Run the program, then close it, and watch what happens.

WM_DESTROY received – window still exists
WM_DESTROY recursing – window still exists
WM_DESTROY received – window still exists
WM_NCDESTROY received – window still exists
WM_NCDESTROY recursing – window still exists
WM_DESTROY received – window still exists
WM_NCDESTROY received – window still exists
WM_NCDESTROY recursion returned – window no longer exists
Access violation – code c0000005
eax=00267160 ebx=00000000 ecx=00263f40 edx=7c90eb94 esi=00263f40 edi=00000000
eip=0003008f esp=0006f72c ebp=0006f73c iopl=0         nv up ei ng nz na pe cy
cs=001b  ss=0023  ds=0023  es=0023  fs=003b  gs=0000             efl=00000283
0003008f ??               ???

Yikes! What happened?

When you clicked the “X” button, this started the window destruction process. As is to be expected, the window received a WM_DESTROY message, but the program responds to this by attempting to destroy the window again. Notice that IsWindow reported that the window still exists at this point. This is true: The window does still exist, although it happens to be in the process of being destroyed. In the original scenario, the code that destroyed the window went something like

if (IsWindow(hwndToDestroy)) {

At any rate, the recursive call to DestroyWindow caused a new window destruction cycle to begin, nested inside the first one. This generates a new WM_DESTROY message, followed by a WM_NCDESTROY message. (Notice that this window has now received two WM_DESTROY messages!) Our bizarro code then makes yet another recursive call to DestroyWindow, which starts a third window destruction cycle. The window gets its third WM_DESTROY message, then its second WM_NCDESTROY message, at which point the second recursive call to DestroyWindow returns. At this point, the window no longer exists: DestroyWindow has destroyed the window.

And that’s why we crash. The base Window class handles the WM_NCDESTROY message by destroying the instance variables associated with the window. Therefore, when the innermost DestroyWindow returns, the instance variables have been thrown away. Execution then resumes with the base class’s WM_NCDESTROY handler, which tries to access the instance variables and gets heap garbage, and then makes the even worse no-no of freeing memory that is already freed, thereby corrupting the heap. It is here that we crash, attempting to call the virtual destructor on an already-destructed object.

I intentionally chose to use the new scratch program (which uses C++ objects) instead of the classic scratch program (which uses global variables) to highlight the fact that after the recursive DestroyWindow call, all the instance variables are gone and you are operating on freed memory.

Moral of the story: Understand your window lifetimes and don’t destroy a window that you know already to be in the process of destruction.


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