One frequent complaint of Gothic horror is that, after almost three centuries of the genre, everything’s pretty much been done. A haunted house isn’t exactly anything new, even across multiple eras of literary change. There is one book, however, that proves that there is always room for a new flavor of scare.
Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves is one of the younger works of true, tough-as-nails horror fiction. Its history is about as strange and spurious as the book itself. According to legend, portions of the book “circulated through the underbellies of Los Angeles, Las Vegas and San Francisco through strip clubs and recording studios” long before its publication in 2000.
The book’s plot is many stories within many stories, beginning with the death of an old man whose only legacy is a bizarre and almost nonsensical manuscript which is then picked up by “Johnny Truant.”
Truant, a drug-addled 20-something, tells his own story through footnotes on the main text, which is an in-depth analysis of a documentary. This documentary, The Navidson Record, is about a house that, in blatant defiance of physics, is larger on the inside than it is on the outside, due to vast darker regions that exist in… well, in nowhere.
So, basically, House of Leaves is a book of notes on another book that’s about a film that’s about a house and that makes citations to other books that don’t exist. Also all the characters involved with the book end up mysteriously going mad somehow. I can’t imagine why.
This dynamic makes for a three-headed narrative-the old man’s scholarly analysis, Truant’s colloquial tone and, my favorite, what can only be called “architectural literature.”
The shape of the writing in this book really depends on the page. It could be sideways, upside down, diagonal, red and struck-through, backward, or even one single letter.
It sounds kitschy, but this is a brilliant, postmodern experiment in how writing can appeal to the reader’s senses in other ways than the words themselves. It’s not independent of language, but it is a reminder that language is always literal. Visuals, structures and forms can speak in their own ways and with their own effects-in this case, a feeling of helplessness.
Which brings me to the most important element-the horror. Much of the writing on these pages is small, isolated little sentences amid seas of blank space. If you study these instances, you’ll find that they seem to emulate the scenarios-and the feelings of the characters in those scenarios-to give the reader the same feelings. In some ways, reading those helpless little letters will make you feel lost inside the deep, dark, empty negative space of a house from which you may never return.
And therein lies the scare aspect of House of Leaves. Its fear isn’t always immediate, seizing or edge-of-seat. It comes in a quiet, unsettled vibe as you reflect on the idea of the dark, trans-dimensional void, and when you quietly realize that if everyone who read the manuscript went insane, then… what about you?
Pick it up if you dare.