September/October 2000, Issue #17
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"The Fearful Symmetry of house of Leaves"
by Rod Gudino
Original art by Scot McClelland
Literary architect MARK DANIELEWSKI talks about the making of a different kind of Haunted House.
No human eye can isolate the unhappy coincidence of line and place which suggests evil in the face of a house, and yet somehow a manic juxtaposition, a badly turned angle some chance meeting of roof and sky, turned Hill House into a place of despair...
The Haunting of Hill House
From The Haunting of Hill House to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, impossible architecture has always indicated things beyond perception; a thing that could, when contemplated, drive the human mind to madness.^1 H.P. Lovecraft, a pioneer in horror fiction, frequently built his haunted houses with geometry gone bad - angles beyond the Euclidean that suggsted places and dimensions beyond our own.^2
The bad architectural principle has recently been rediscovered by American author Mark Z. Danielewski whose first novel, House of Leaves, is founded on bad geometry.^3 Strange mathematics make Danielewski's house a quarter of an inch larger on the inside than outside, but like many uncanny^4 houses, this one is also more than just a house; an unearthly energy gives it a semblance of a deeper, sinister personality.
1. A link between bad architecture and horror was made by Stephen
King in Danse Macabre pp. 289 and following.
2. notably The Dreams In The Witch House.
3. See "What It's About" on page 12.
4. "uncanny" literally "not at home" (Being In Time Martin Heidegger).^5
5. House or Leaves p. 25.
"I think the book without a doubt is very threatening."
-Mark Z. Danielewski
Originally posted in some obscure comer of the world wide web^6, House of Leaves was eventually purchased and, after several years, finally published as a book.^7 Flipping through its pages, one can find ample reasons for its complicated history; essays, footnotes, crossed out passages, exhaustive lists, transcripts and fragments of letters befuddle the eye with the authenticity of an archaeological find.
Since its publication earlier this year, House of Leaves has been the focus of considerable attention - both good and bad - from its growing readership. Some find it to be an incomprehensible pastiche of literary techniques; others find a story of profound horror within its pages. Whatever your take, there is no question that House of Leaves has touched a nerve that few books do.
Rue Morgue spoke to Mark Danielewski in July.
6. Since lost. The official House of Leaves website can be found
7. Published by Random House, 709 pp; US $19.95 CAN $29.95.
What is your background?
Born in New York city, father was an avant-garde filmmaker, so we were moving around constantly, especially in the early days. I lived in Africa, India, in Spain for two years, England, in Switzerland. We always kept coming back to the States, travelling a great deal around the States. I've been a writer my whole life. I was writing stories when I was four or five and I wrote my first novel when I was ten. I made a New Year's resolution that I would write a page a day and my parents would laugh but at the end of the year I had a 365 page book which was called The Hellhole about a wealthy kid who becomes a cocaine addict who beats up a cop and goes to prison. My parents were beautifully horrified; my mother didn't know how to respondd and my father felt that I had written an immoral book so that kind of drove me underground for quite a while!
When did you write House of Leaves and was it actually circulating on the internet for a while?
I started writing the book almost right out of college. I graduated in 1988 and in 1989 I had a sense that I was going to write this big, somewhat dark -- I didn't recognize yet how dark -- novel. And I began writing sketches, developing characters and I wrote a series of theoretical essays of how the techniques of cinema could be applied to text as a way of amplifying the reading experience. This went on for about three years and then in 1993 my father died and I moved to Los Angeles. Shortly after his death I had this idea of a house that was a quarter of an inch bigger on the inside than the outside, and I didn't know what it was. I had no idea how to place it; I actually thought it was -- like that quarter of an inch -- fairly insignificant. And then it dawned on me a little later that this was, in fact, where my characters lived, this was their established setting. And this was a way of also incorporating all the theoretical and philosophical questions that I had been phrasing out. My subconscious had produced this answer from its dark basement. Then I worked on it for a solid two years and then I actually threw the whole thing out. I then wrote a sixty page outline, and then, based on that outline, I could then go back to what I had written, incorporate that as well as incorporating additional material.
Did the outline include the two narrative voices of Johnny Truant and Zampano?
Johnny was there, but the outline was mainly about The Navidson Record. I was making sure that the story was as tight as possible. Again, I knew that I was going to incorporate the material that I'd been working on in the previous three years. I was writing that after having written the Johnny parts, so I knew how that would come along. It was a very complicated weave. A couple of years later, in 1998 or 1999 I posted the whole thing on the 'net.
What It's About
THE NAVIDSON RECORD: a documentary made by a photo journalist who discovers that the new house that he and his wife and their two kids have moved into is actually bigger on the inside than on the outside. The discrepancy is almost insignificant (a quarter of an inch) but enough to gnaw at Will Navidson and his wife Karen's fragile relationship. One day, they discover a new door in their house, one that leads into a cold, lightless corridor. Will decides to explore it, along with his estranged brother and three other men. Armed with flashlights and walkie talkies, they venture into a colossal labyrinth of obsidian walls and spiralling staircases, and the unearthly growl of something wandering its corridors.^8
[The following footnote for this sidebar is upside-down in the magazine.]
8.What It's _Really_ About
HOUSE OF LEAVES: the story of The Navidson Record as told by a blind man named Zampano, who mysteriously dies one day in his tiny apartment literally cluttered with thousands of pieces of paper, on which he has written sentences and fragments of sentences. These are appropriated by Johnny Truant, a nomad of the Hollywood strip, who begins to decipher the awful secret of the old man's obsession with Will Navidson's home movies. Johnny plumbs the depths of Zampano's fixation enough to glimpse the Thing behind the mysterious claw marks that were found beside the body. Written in a highly unconventional style (backwards, forwards, sideways, up-side-down), House of Leaves is a literary labyrinth of profound nightmares, aborted stories, dead ends and fragments of people, some who barely qualify to be among the living. Enter with caution.
That was laid out as it is now laid out in book form?
Pretty much. The labyrinth chapter with the boxes -- that did not exist yet, it was indicated. I knew that it was going to happen, but I had written the whole thing out in Word and I knew that I would have to move into Quark and some other software to do that. That chapter actually became more complex in its final stage.
You mentioned cinema earlier. I understand that the book visually resembles a movie, but that doesn't explain to me the mockumentary style that you chose to adopt, or does it? Am I missing something?
It's a great question that gets to the heart of a lot of it. There is a sense that we want to see our stories in cinema and read our stories in book form in a sanitized way because we are protected by the author's voice. There is something very haunting, for example, about The Blair Witch Project and it's the fact that the person who is handling the camera could in fact perish. When you start seeing crane shots and swooping helicopter shots, you know there is a crew out there that is safely outside of all the action, and they're going to be alright. So it distances you more, ironically enough, than in a documentary, where you actually have a much closer connection to that first person camera. And so a lot of people talk about the distancing effect in the narrative a there is that element to it without a doubt, but it also begins to draw you in a little closer because you're really uncertain about who is going to make it through this experience.
I actually didn't want to mention The Blair Witch Project, but obviously there are similarities between it and House of Leaves. Did Blair Witch in fact figure in any way in the writing of your book?
[laughs] Actually, the real question I'd like to know is whether the book figured in the production of the movie! I think the book was actually purchased before the Blair Witch was even written. Now it's really not that important a question for me, because I do feel that there is a legitimate zeitgeist out there. I mean, there's doubt that I was raised on those mock-documentaries; In Search of Bigfoot and Nova - all that stuff was there. There is now also an increasing nostalgia -- with the presence of video -- for old documentary footage, like the Munich Olympics when the Israeli team was assassinated, for example. There was a quality not only to those actions but also to that footage that had a resonance which just sort of permeated everywhere. Add to that the fact that there is the technology available and everyone is taking videos of their children and so we're constantly bombarded now, not with photo albums but with people sitting us down on their couches and saying "look at this, what my family did on their vacation." It's becoming more of our visual idiom. I think that was definitely working with The Blair Witch Project and working with House of Leaves.
At the heart of your book we have the labyrinth of darkness, emptiness and physical annihilation, which I understood as a very particular existential kind of horror. Is this how you understand it yourself?
There are certain things that I will not comnent on concerning the book. One vow I made is that I wouldn't compromise the personal experience of a particular reader's discovery, whereby they're reading along and suddenly something comes together that no one else has seen and it's theirs. It's an exciting moment of discovery and it's personal and it's a victory. For me to get into those aspects is to destroy that. That said, I think there's no doubt that the heart of the book is very personal but it's personal in a way that is specific, not so much to me but to the reader. Everyone's experience of that darkness is different, and the book is consciously aware of that. It's attempting to create a very specific screen, a very specific movie theatre, on which each reader can project their version of the film. When I was touring around, people would come up to me and tell me how certain parts made them feel, and then connect that anxiety to personal experiences they had, whether it was being caught in a field during a lightning storm to actual parental molestation. One woman told me a story that after this horrendous thing happened, she continually had dreams that there were extra rooms and corridors in her own house. So everyone brings to that darkness; the reader is at the heart of that darkness.
I guess I came to the idea of annihilation not only through the labyrinth but through the people that surround The Navidson Record, notably Johnny and his friends - the anonymous people from the underbelly of Hollywood whose addictions and pursuits continually evoke a kind of psychological and emotional emptiness.
I think you're touching on something that is very close to my heart, which is that these people - who are very, very real - seem to be the ones who are frequently more in contact with that darkness and that threat of annihilation. What makes them almost heroic to me, is that we're all close to that threat. But because of circumstances, because of a certain perspicuity on their part, they are driven to look more closely at it, instead of just denying it and saying "oh yeah, everything's fine." I have some very good friends who have gone through all sorts of hell, and some of them have not gone to college and are swept up in all sorts of addictions and self-destructive behaviour. But they are incredibly smart, incredibly facile with ideas, the movement of language and stories and incredible memories. The obvious juxtaposition of highbrow intellectual garble and lowbrow oral storytelling in the book is meant to bring to light that intelligence cannot be denoted by collegiate degrees.
I was intrigued and equally horrified but also saddened by Johnny's story.
I've always felt that great horror is always counterpointed by an almost equal quotient of sorrow. If you would take any horror story you have seen, even The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and if you change the time you're looking at it - perhaps you are thinking back on it and what not - there's a sadness there that people have failed, have died, have vanished. There's a certain sadness as a result of perspective.
Johnny eventually finds the book House of Leaves and reads it. Without getting you to go back on your decision not to comment on certain parts of the book; is that humour on your part or is it something else? Is it even important?
Absolutely, very important. I think there are many things that can be looked at in a humorous way, but that's never the main reason. The whole question of the book within the book is a very important, complicated one. It not only relates to Johnny's encounter with his own book existing within the context of a larger book, but also to Will Navidson in the heart of the house reading and burning a book which is apparently called House of Leaves. I don't really want to give it away, other than to say that we all, at some point, recognize that the story that we've been living in our own lives may suddenly become a book that we are reading that is contained within our life. So what we have externally experienced we can in a flash, in a night, after maybe decades, suddenly internalize into a story we are reading which in turn begins to influence our external life. And a rich life, I think, is full of shelf loads of internal books.
I have to tell you that the reason I asked about that is because I got a chill when I read that part of the book. It occurred to me that if Johnny found the book and begins reading it and I'm reading it, then maybe I'm in the hook too.
Not maybe, you absolutely are in the book!
And I guess that darkness, that annihilation applies to me too. In a way that's the most frightening part of House of Leaves for me. What is the most frightening part of the book for you?
I think what's most frightening is the nature of denial throughout the book, where people deny the existence of a threat only to be threatened by it. I realize that is a very cold, intellectual response, but if you start to inhabit that idea it begins to have all sorts of terrifying ramifications which involve everything from the Pekinese story to the growl to the fact that the kids are wandering down that hallway one day unnoticed by their parents.
Does it irk you to hear people call House of Leaves a horror novel?
I'm not going to deny its roots, I'm going to expand its roots! I think most people who read horror are enthused about it, but I think people hate the way even readers get pigeonholed in that genre.
It's one of the worst for that kind of thing, besides porno maybe.
[laughs] It's a funny thing; the book just got released in England and the reviews have been really good. And what's great is that they're more alert to that phenomenon of horror books in America than Americans are, in that they realize the dark matter origins of the genre are rooted in Emily Dickinson, Hawthorne, Poe and Melville, who are, of course, considered to be the progenitors of American literature.
House of Leaves is a haunted house book with lots of points of reference to the Gothic novel. I couldn't resist thinking of it as a post post-modern version of the Gothic novel in some way. Would you agree?
I think you could write a book on the mode of Gothic horror in House of Leaves. It's something I was very conscious of all the way through, from its inception to its finish. Again, it's in the tradition of the first ghostly American authors - I wouldn't even think to deny that. But how it manifests itself is different, so you may be right in saying that it is a kind of post-modern example of what we have viewed until now as a Gothic novel. I think the question of the haunted house is fascinating. If you examine the word "haunted" you find that at its roots is the meaning of "home," so "haunting" is that which is reminiscent of or figurative or a threat of home. So a haunted house is a house that is haunted by a home and that I think is very much part of the Gothic idea and that is definitely very part of House of Leaves.
[caption: A Man And His House: "A haunted house is a house that is haunted by a home," says author Mark Danielewski (centre).]
The mark of a good book is that it is loved as much as it is reviled, and House of Leaves has definitely lived up to both opinions. Why do you think people have reacted so fiercely either for or against it?
I think some people are very resistant to a new experience. Some people hear that there is a scary story and they immediately dial up certain expectations; the way a story should unfold, the kind of chills it should deliver, the way horror should be described. When they discover it is something else they are irked by it. I think the book without a doubt is very threatening. I've always said that the root of all anger is fear, so whenever anyone is angry it means they are afraid. They're afraid their going to be hurt, they're afraid that their psychological idea of themselves is going to be compromised - it's an evolutionary survival skill; we're afraid, we get angry. When people get really angry at this book, there has to be a level of fear. I find some people think they're just too stupid to get it and that makes them angry because they feel bad about themselves, which is something I don't want to have happen. So the levels of irritation in response to the book are very telling, and of course there are also a bunch of reactions which I have no idea where they come from!
When was your last great literary scare?
I can definitely think of some of my first ones. I remember being terrified as a child when I heard The Monkey's Paw. It was so simple and yet so compelling; that marvellous notion that what we wish for we may not want to wish for. It was this chilling story where this creature that was dead was coming to life, and yet it was also a superb philosophical dilemma and it was also beautifully rooted in Greek myth, particularly the myth of Thesonius who wishes for immortality but forgets to wish for the appearance of youth so he withers away into nothing. So here's a simple folk story rooted in an ancient myth. And it also scared the bejesus out of me.
Mark, what are you working on for the future?
We're working on a very little project and somewhat unique in the tradition of publishing as far as I know. We're releasing The Whalestoe Letters, which are the letters from Johnny's mother, in October. There are some letters that weren't included that I am going to include in this edition. It's going to be cheaper and it's geared for people who are interested in House of Leaves but maybe a little too intimidated to take on the whole thing. I'm excited about it because it shows that books can also be sold in intriguing ways, that there could be some creativity in the way books are marketed. I think it's very important because it's about getting people to read more, and anything that promotes books is something that I am in favour of.