Chicago Sun-Times
April 16, 2000


"House of hyperactivity"

Author designs engaging tale of terror

features editor


This guy with the blue hair wants to scare you.

No, he's not some angry, alienated punk with attitude.

In fact, it only takes about two minutes after meeting Mark Z. Danielewski to forget about the bright blue locks. He's as amiable and engaging as they come.

But he's written a book, House of Leaves (Pantheon, $l9.95), that can keep you up at nights and make you never look at a closet in quite the same way again.

Newsweek has called House of Leaves a literary "Blair Witch Project," and that comes awfully close to describing Danielewski's tour de force first novel.

But enough about the frightening stuff; the book is also staggeringly good fun to plow through.

"I'm glad you said the word 'fun,'" laughs the author . . . and former plumber, cappuccino waiter, documentary flimmaker, Yalie and groundskeeper.

For anyone with a yen for puzzles or challenges, Danielewski has fashioned a house of mirrors with parallel stories, annotations, countless footnotes, appendices and an index. The book has whole sections with only one word on a page, offering a kinetic reading ride you're not likely to forget.

Danielewski, 34, spent the last 10 years crafting this story. It arrives in the form of a journal by a blind man named Zampano.

Now, don't get confused here. . . . Zampano's journal chronicles a 1993 nonfction film called "The Navidson Record."

Navidson is a man who moves with his family into a big Virginia farmhouse. He quickly encounters a situation that would freak out even the "This Old House" guys. It seems the inside of the place is five-sixteenths of an inch longer than it measures on the outside.

And that's just for starters.

The family also opens a mysterious door on the first floor that leads to a dark, cold space. Those who venture into the abyss find that it changes shape, twisting and turning from one visit to the next. Sometimes it's the size of a walk-in closet. On other occasions it presents a staircase that descends for miles. People disappear for days at a time. Navidson records his family's strange ordeal (and eventual breakdown) on video, and we get to watch how they all confront this gaping unknown off their living room.

Ia the dark space real? A substitute for the subconscious? A commentary on fear? Maybe the last is the closest, says Danielewski, who also likes the term "smart horror."

"A lot of horror books and films are just interested in eliciting fear," he says. "I'm more interested in getting at what fear is, how we react to it, where it comes from on a personal level and a cultural level."

What's creepiest (and most engrossing) about House of Leaves are the story's multiple layers. In addition to "The Navidson Record," there is the parallel tale of Gen-X'er Johnny Truant, who finds the old man's version of the story and has his own life affected by it. And then there are the myriad footnotes recording how the academic and intellectual community has reacted to the bizarre document.

The odd, encyclopedic, 709-page result gets weirder with each page. Skim through House of Leaves and you'll encounter a printer's treasure chest of fonts, type sizes, different-colored inks, words that seemingly bleed through the paper and screenplay dialogue.

"The story had to be told in thia way," Danielewski shrugs. "A friend of mine said she thought I had put everything I knew in there. I just wanted to flow it through with the characters. I wanted to somehow put in the themes of the house . . . the psychological barriers . . . this multitextual, analog universe always going on in our head."

The best part about House of Leaves is reading it on the bus or train and watching other passengers turn their eyes your way as you rip through 50 pages in a minute or turn the book sideways and upside-down to keep up with the footnotes, commentaries and general mayhem.

Weird as it is to read, House of Leaves also made the publishing industry go through some bizarre twists and turns.

After posting versions of the book on the Internet ("I had some awful URL with all sorts of numbers and backslashes," Danielewski says with a laugh), the author finally got serious about publishing.

Once an agent was secured, "We went over the manuscript and he was doubtful about many things, especially the single word pages. But I just said, "No, no, no. That's the way we'll do it.'"

The manuscript went out to 35 publishers. All said no except for two. But Danielewski knew from their responses that they all saw its value. "We got a sign that this was strong and something special because no one was willing to simply can it."

Pantheon won a small bidding war, and then the real fun of getting this postmodern, typographical Moby Dick into print began.

"I was certainly naive on a certain level," Danielewski admits. "I thought I just had to give these instructions and six months later I'd have a book. But the skies just kept getting darker and darker."

The typesetting process proved too difficult for the ultra-traditional book business.

"I got on a plane, thanks to frequent-flier miles, and was there at the printer 24/7 typesetting the whole book. We were heading for a train wreck. They said we're going to run this this way, and I said, "you're kidding . . . No we're going to do it the way I did it." To their credit, they let me do it."

MZDThe galley ended up with 2,000 corrections, and the writer pored over proofs until a few weeks before publication.

It's obvious that Danielewski is interested in pushing the possibilities of books.

"The fact that Stephen King had hundreds of thousands of people downloading his last book indicates that words don't have to exist in a certain form. That is not to deprive the potential of the book, but it can be pushed into different areas. The older generation is so conservative about the way a book should look, but I think the Internet is changing that."

He may be right. Danielewski's unusual tome is already in its fourth printing after just a few weeks. And it's likely to keep cooking and get another boost when his sister, the musician Poe, releases her album based on the book in June.

"Kids keep looking at it and saying, "Wow, I can read this . . . Yes I get this . . . I think this way . . . I was thinking about writing this way. . . . This is the way I write on my Mac."

For Danielewski, the reaction has been affirming. He says it's all relatively simple: "My father was a documentary filmmaker. I was raised to look at stories in different ways. I think it's a much more accurate way to look at the world."

[photo credit: Jim Frost/Sun Times]
[caption: Mark Z. Danielewski offers an unforgettable, kinetic reading ride with House of Leaves.]