Haunted Houses, Hollywood and Heidegger

By the

August 30, 2001

If I were to walk up to the average Georgetown student, and inquire: “read any decent fiction lately?”—their first response would be a resigned “yeah, right pal, more reading is about the last thing on my mind about now.” Then they might respond with time tested acts like Salinger, Marquez, or Vonnegut. Decent picks? Maybe. But a genuine piece of novelistic craft from a member of our generation? Probably not.

House of Leaves (Pantheon, 2000), has a certain power, blurring the lines between reality and fiction, and a seemingly innocuous life of its own; it navigates itself from group to group, city to city, never widely discussed, but always lurking just beneath the surface.

A friend showed me her copy of House of Leaves, given as a gift by her friend, as she attempted to make her way through its nebulous and winding 700+ pages over the summer. I took one look, and was hooked. In his first endeavor, Mark Danielewski has not only mastered the terrain laid by other masters of the horror genre but genuinely transcended it.

The idea of the book is simple: You, the reader, are perusing a manuscript found in the apartment of a blind, dead writer by the name of Zampano, titled House of Leaves. The version you have is (ostensibly fictional) editor Johnny Truants’ annotated personal version. The manuscript in question (by Zampano) describes in great theoretical and journalistic detail the story of a Blair Witch feeling documentary which may or may not have existed both in the landscape of both the book and our (the reader’s) reality. This documentary, The Navidson Record, as described in the House of Leaves manuscript, follows the life of eccentric Pulitzer prize-winning photo journalist Tom Navidson as he moves to a house in the Virginian countryside in order to save his marriage and family.

This is no ordinary house, however. In fact, the internal spatial dimensions seem to exceed the external dimensions, and the house has a tendency to grace its residents with new doors and hallways, which remain unnoticeable on the exterior. Whether these hallways go into the underworld of the unknown, or of Tom’s mind is for you to decide, but the analysis and story telling that Zampano (author of the House of Leaves manuscript itself) provide are thoughtful and vivid. He cites everyone from Rainer Maria, Foucault, and Danielewski’s (the author of the whole damn thing) sister, to musician Poe.

Easy enough, right? Well, it turns out that Zampano has his own sordid history to resolve, which manifests itself in footnotes to his manuscript, which is unnerving, because most of them reference real sources. So far so good? Fictional editor Johnny Truant, who is external to the manuscript, and serves as the book’s “god” voice does some creative footnoting as well (about 300 pages worth, enough to merit his own typesetting in the book), through which we chart his descent into the Hollywood underworld of sex, drugs, nervous breakdowns, bad poetry, and notes from the asylum.

It’s a good story. Now for the brilliance. Blair Witch had a sort of post-modern, mind-twisting cleverness to it. Then you realize that it wasn’t real. More to the point, you would never venture into the forests of the Chesapeake alone with a camera. House of Leaves operates on the same reality/fiction blurring foundation, with its references to real events, real footnotes, and verifiable content. You cannot escape House of Leaves in the same way that you would a movie. Everything that happens in the text either did or did not really happen, and could happen to you. Welcome to post-modern psychological horror.

And that’s the beauty: the monster is both omniscient and invisible, around the corner, and in the closet, in the mirror, and in your mind. It is the scariest book that I have ever read, a common response from virtually every other reader of the book that I have encountered. This is accomplished, however, without the gore of Lovecraft or Carpenter, the novelistic trashiness of Rice, or the pretentious and roundabout droning of King. Danielewski is gifted with a philosophical and literary grace that allows his work to satiate the part of the brain that wants a good yarn, and the other side that wants a smart piece of non-fiction. Compared to Nabokov, Joyce, and Bradbury, Danielewski uses his important and fresh new voice to paint a compelling and hypnotic picture. He also gives you a lot of new toys.

To read House of Leaves, you will need: 1. Magnifying glass, to scrutinize provided Polaroids and montages. 2. Mirror, to decipher upside down, and backwards text. 3. Pen and paper, to decipher embedded messages within the text, notably letters from Truant’s committed mother (later published by Pantheon as the Whalestoe Letters). 4. Natural light, as this should not be read in the dark. No, seriously. It’s not good for the mind.

These added appendices (and the text is exploding with them) along with Derridean strike marks, encrypted colorization of key words, upside down, spiral, and cascading type, and hundreds of footnotes, in every language from German to ancient Greek, both demonstrate Danielewski’s impressive command of virtually every field of human inquiry, and makes House of Leaves a feast for anyone with a mildly active brain.

In the beginning it was these groundbreaking layout tools, the way that Danielewski neither misses a word nor an inch of physical space to create his work, that hooked me. Literally everyone I have showed it to has walked by the next day, already fully engrossed, or even better, obsessed. I read it in two days, which left me disoriented, terrified, and with rejuvenated faith in writing. I’ll allow you to discover the rest for yourself.

So when you are settled into your dorms and classes and New South routine this semester, huck Plato and Shakespeare out the window, and pick up House of Leaves. You’ll get a better understanding of the two out of the latter, and I promise, it will be an experience that you will not forget.

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