note: I am linking this review to the RIP V Challenge page so I will try valiantly to avoid spoilers.
The spoilers will return tomorrow, with part 2.
House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
Pantheon Books, 2000, 2nd Edition (2-Color version)
709+ pages of text and other things.
“Victoria Lucas once said, There’s nothing “so black…as the inferno of the human mind.””– Pelafina Lievre*
Mark Z. Danielewski’s debut novel House of Leaves lives on our bookshelf. When browsing the shelves for the RIP V Challenge, Sean reassured me this was a horror novel. It is a horror novel, and a romance story, and … many other things. I will be focusing on the horror aspect. But First, I shall attempt a brief description of the book.**
House of Leaves contains a manuscript written by Zampano, The Navidson Record. The Navidson Record is a treatise on a film of the same name, which is a documentary following Will Navidson, his lover Karen Green, and their children, Chad and Daisy, as they move into a new home in Virginia and create a sense of new beginnings for their family. When doors and hallways appear that shouldn’t, events take a new dark turn.
Johnny Truant has found Zampano’s manuscript and notes in a black trunk that he liberates from the dead man’s apartment. Truant decides that he would publish Zampano’s work. The Introduction in House of Leaves is written by Truant and it concludes with a clear warning that the reader will not remain unaffected, and provides a warning:
It doesn’t happen immediately. You’ll finish and that will be that, until a moment will come, maybe in a month, maybe a year, maybe even several years.[…]Out of the blue, beyond any cause you can trace, you’ll suddenly realize things are not how you perceived them to be at all. For some reason, you will no longer be the person you believed you once were. You’ll detect slow and subtle shifts going on all around you, more importantly shifts in you. Worse, you’ll realize it’s always been shifting, like a shimmer of sorts […] only dark like a room. […]You’ll have forgotten what granted you this awareness in the first place.
You’ll watch yourself dismantle every assurance you ever lived by. You’ll stand aside as a great complexity intrudes, tearing apart, piece by piece, all of your carefully conceived denials, whether deliberate or unconscious. And then, for better or worse you’ll turn, unable to resist though try to resist you will, fighting with everything you’ve got not to face the thing you most dread, what is now, what will be, what has always come before, the creature you truly are, the creature we all are, buried in the nameless black of a name.
And then the nightmares will begin.” (xxii-xxiii).
Truant is clearly quite dramatic, but he will go on to illustrate exactly what he is talking about. Throughout The Navidson Record Truant has included notes. They range from explanations on inclusions, exclusions, or missing pieces to what is going on in his life as he is editing Zampano’s work. Then there are the Editors who have collected Truant’s work and have published the volume you are reading. They leave little footnotes, too. Appendix 1 concerns Zampano, with notes and poems, etc. The second Appendix is Truant’s with poems, historical artifacts, and Letters from his mentally ill Mother.
House of Leaves is dense and complicated and not for the staid reader. Despite its unusual demeanor, the book is not impenetrable once one gets the hang of it. And really Danielewski builds the work in such away that the reader is eased into stories and format before attempting to further disorient. That is important to a good work of Horror, isn’t it? To disorient the reader. Danielewski uses word images and visual formatting quite brilliantly this way. Horror seeks a visceral response.
The House on Ash Tree Lane was built 1720 and “quite a few people have slept and suffered within those walls” (21). Some may have even suffered before (413-4).
House of Leaves employs most every trope any and all Horror novels and films could employ and even some they wouldn’t. Conspirators of fear are sprinkled throughout so if one kind of terror doesn’t grip you, be patient, another will.
There are the creepy children. This is one ingredient that is sure to give me chills. Chad and Daisy have their own unhealthy obsessive responses to the dark and endless corridors that haunt the house. You are at times both terrified for them and of them. Then there is another kind of horror. The children are quite neglected by their parents, Will and Karen, who are caught up in their own neurosis (fast becoming psychosis). As you learn about some of the adult character’s pasts, they appear to foreshadow the children’s own outcomes; which would be terrible.
One of the more prevalent elements is the Monster. It stalks, it lurks, it imbibes. It shape-shifts, in transforms, it infiltrates. In googling “Elements of Horror,” I came across a discussion of “Monster” at DarkCloudPress.com and a reference to a Noel Carroll text: “The monster must be regarded as both: 1) threatening, and 2) impure. If only threatening, then the emotion is fear. If only impure, the emotion is disgust. But, if both, the emotion is horror.”*** At turns characters and settings in House of Leaves do incited fear and disgust, but Danielewski does create a few characters that excite horror. And they are differentiated exactly as noted. They combine threat and impurity.
The House is bigger on the inside as it is on the outside. (Which wouldn’t initially be a terrifying idea for Doctor Who fans) “The horror was atypical. […] what took place amounts to a strange spatial violation” (24). The engineer Reston would later use the words spatial rape. It is an insidious source of anxiety in the house that only increases as time passes. This is even before The Explorations (#1-5) which take the reader/viewer into the supernatural and interminably black depths of the house. Perceptions and Realities shift. There is a growl. Is it a creature hunting or the walls moving (123)? Senses of direction are lost and rendered useless. Claustrophobia is explored and employed (in visual textual format, ie 443-58).
“Of course real horror does not depend upon the melodrama of shadows or even the conspiracies of night” (415).
There is the increased deterioration and disorientation of the characters, their perceptions, and even the text itself. The reader’s disorientation involves footnotes, occasional references to appendices, extensive notes by Truant, then the labyrinthine text (in the chapter about labyrinths), the oddly placed text, missing letters and words, to missing pages of manuscript, all the while questioning the veracity of what you are being told and by whom.
Which brings us to the Framing and the Unreliable narrator.
“I live at the end of some interminable corridor which the lucky damned can call hell but which the much unluckier atheists—and your mother heads up that bunch—must simply get used to calling home.” Pelafina Lievre.****
Despite our knowledge as the reader that The Navidson Record (the film) never existed (nor the treastise for that matter), the reader is suspended in the grasp of the stories being told. The Navidson parts are compelling. And for many others, so are Johnny Truants. Then there are Zampano’s notes and the Whalestone Letters in the back. And the poems…
There can be no more unreliable a narrator than Zampano until we come to Johnny Truant: copious amounts of drug and alcohol consumption; education?; mother in an Asylum; admitted storyteller and liar; manipulates the manuscript at whim; suffers memory loss; deteriorates physically and mentally…And yet his susceptibility to The Navidson Record is reliable. His parallels seem to manifest the creation of the Record and/or vice versa. “We all create stories to protect ourselves,” Johnny writes (20). He would direct our attention to Zampano and the swathes of text concerning the Minotaur Myth the enigmatic author would strike-out, but the saying applies to himself as well.
There is also the issue with the multiple frames. The contents of the film are revealed through multiple perspectives. The Navidson Record , the treatise, cannot simply narrate the events of the film it is analyzing without alerting the reader that the film does not, in fact, even exist and thus detract from the engrossing action/dialogue. The necessity of the first frame, the concept of a treatise, is evident. Upon this layer Zampano employs many more, i.e. page 398: a summary of a paper analyzing a dream retold on film by Will Navidson; four transcriptions from “a dream” to Zampano’s work which is published by Truant and then Pantheon. Every layer interrogates the veracity of the initial event and its subsequent representations. To what purpose?
In the analysis of the Navidson documentary, representation and the veracity of events is ever in question. Note this footnote on page (346):
“[Navidson] subtly draws attention once again to the question of inadequacies in representation, no matter the medium, no matter how flawless […] mockingly emphasizes the fallen nature of any history by purposefully concocting an absurd number of generations. […]Representation does not replace. It only offers distance and in rare cases perspective.”*****
[Danielewski] not-so-subtly draws attention once again to the question of inadequacies in representation, mockingly emphasizing the fallen nature, purposefully concocting an absurd number of generations… Why is distance required? Is the necessity similar to that in the anxiety producing memory loss of various characters, most importantly Truant’s?
“He [the Director] quoted Emily Dickinson saying that I cover the abyss with a trance so my memories can manage a way around it—this “pain so utter.””.******
The horror cannot be directly looked upon, thus creating a greater fear in the unknown quantity that lies covered by the trance. What exists and what does not, what is Real and what is not, merely imagined or perceived incorrectly?
In a particular case concerning Johnny (the late Gdansk man encounter), the suspension of information, the lack of memory, and supposed action (his “intentions”) are more horrifying than what actually occurs in a later recollection.
In the case of the aforementioned “dream” analyzed on page 398, what is so threatening and impure about the dream that the horror must be distanced? Is the impact of what occurs in the dream lessened? Has it been replaced? Or is the offering merely perspective and this is not intended to be a creepy section of the book (which is entirely possible).
The film, the treatise, the notes…all create fear, and then systematically dismantles it; then rebuilds it, or did it ever really leave?, and then moves away from it again. Movement throughout House of Leaves creeps from one scare to the next and circles back or turns or drops or alludes to or explicitly tells to where you wish you hadn’t read that.
When all is said and done, House of Leaves is essentially a horror novel, but less about things that go bump in the night, and more about the empty spaces in our awareness, the tension between certainty and uncertainty, and the ambiguities in our apprehension of ourselves, others, and the world. ~Alan B Ruch (see)
While I agree with Ruch, there are plenty of bumps in the night for those reading for less the psychological-thriller and more the spine-tingler. Danielewski is looking at fear; its causes and manifestations. And while the effort of reading through the numerous facets of fear (its conceptions, projections, reproductions, etc.) seems like a lot of work for a good creepy novel, the moments of adrenal highs may still be worth it. (did that sound indecisive?) By book’s end, Hope far outscales Fear and little is left to linger but perhaps Grief.
I enjoyed House of Leaves even though at times it frustrated me. I would highly recommend it for the scare, for the mysteries, for the intellectual frippery, for the love stories. I’ve been thinking to whom I would recommend it. I started a list (with an understanding combinations would have to be made): cinephiles, readers of non-fiction, fiction, academic journals, and dangerous writing; modernists, post-modernists, structuralists, post-structuralists, readers of Borges, Baudrillard, Barthes, Plath, Dickinson, Palahniuk…, architects, engineers (maybe), graphic designers, those not struggling with pornography, followers of psychological fiction, historical fiction, violence, distortion,…the more adventurous literati,…people who know how footnotes work,…
Eric Wittermaus, in his book review for Flak Magazine, recommends House of Leaves this way (though I think there is plenty of scare in Truant’s storyline):
“Danielewski has created a book that’s something for everyone. For those seeking a truly frightening book, there’s The Navidson Record. For those looking for a well-crafted tale of an aimless, wandering drifter, there’s the story of Johnny Truant. Fans of clever, pomo annotation have the author’s glee club of footnotes and occasional pokes at academia, and typographers will doubtless spend hours scanning the book’s pages for clever ideas. There’s even a mother-son drama and a love story that both play larger roles in the book than many critics have acknowledged. And Area 51 maniacs and ex-CIA men alike will relish the task of decoding all Danilewski’s messages.”
If you fit the “older generation” designation that Danielewski goes on to illuminate, best avoid House of Leaves. Danielewski, in an interview with Sophie Cottrell at <boldtype>, recognizes that House of Leaves may irritate older generations:
Really the only thing challenging about my book is the idea of a book itself. Older generations–despite the fact that they’re multi-processing their morning breakfast, a train wreck in India and thoughts of an ailing friend–will find House of Leaves difficult because they’re prejudiced. They’ve been taught what a book should look like and how it should be read. Ruler-wielding didacts have instilled in them the notion that a book must start here, move along like this, and finish over there.
But books don’t have to be so limited. They can intensify informational content and experience. Multiple stories can lie side by side on the page. Search engines–in the case of House of Leaves a word index–will allow for easy cross-referencing. Passages may be found, studied, revisited, or even skimmed. And that’s just the beginning. Words can also be colored and those colors can have meaning. How quickly pages are turned or not turned can be addressed. Hell pages can be tilted, turned upside down, even read backwards.
Put your dictionary at your elbow, do not be daunted by the massive footnotes or the malevolent creature stalking the pages, find your reading chair and open the door leading to the labyrinthine corridor in the inferno of the human mind; and perhaps mind these symptoms: “obsessive behavior; weight loss; night terrors; vivid dreaming accompanied by increased mutism.”
*November 27, 1998 letter to her son Johnny Truant (637). Victoria Lucas a pseudonym of Sylvia Plath’s invention. “In the midst of her early success, [Sylvia] Plath experienced her first breakdown and famous disappearance. She was subsequently hospitalized and treated with shock therapy. Plath described the hospitalization as "[a] time of darkness, despair, and disillusion--so black only as the inferno of the human mind can be--symbolic death, and numb shock--then the painful agony of slow rebirth and psychic regeneration." This was followed by a suicide attempt in 1953 and six months of intensive therapy, paid for by a benefactress." [emphasis mine] Marie Griffin, Guest Contributor at About.com (link). Note the similarities of Pelafina’s own breakdown and disappearance and her subsequent actions.
**when you've noticed I've failed in my attempt, you can follow the link to Powell's books and a link to wiki.
***link to “Elements of Horror” via DarkCloudPress.com’s Blog Files. Reference to Noel Carroll's “The Nature of Horror,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 1987. p ?
****July 31, 1987 letter to Johnny (624).
***** I would cite the source, but it was made-up anyway and I am exhausted with the effort of documentation.~L
****** November 27, 1988 letter to Johnny from his mother, Pelafina Lievre(637). There is a Pain—So Utter by Emily Dickinson
There is a pain—so utter—
It swallows substance up—
Then covers the Abyss with Trance—
So Memory can step
As one within a Swoon—
Goes safely—where an open eye—
Would drop Him—Bone by Bone.