House of Leaves
For October, I am sharing one the creepiest books I've ever read. House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski, is a complicated and fascinating novel that took ten years to write. It has a story within a story narrative, analyzing a documentary about a house where doors appear where they should not, leading to dark hallways that sometimes go nowhere and other times open to an infinite maze of corridors with an unknown destructive force inside.
The text is set in different fonts so the reader can distinguish two stories. The main text of the book is supposedly written by an old blind man, Zampano, and reads much like a critical essay looking at the film through feminist, Freudian, Jungian lenses. A multitude of fictional texts are cited - periodicals and books about the film appear in a constant stream of entertaining footnotes. Writing footnotes to these footnotes is the second narrative by Johnny Truant, a junkie tattoo parlor employee who has inherited Zampano's papers after the old man was found dead among massive claw marks on the floor of his home. The reader can only wonder how he died, or how a blind man could have written anything about a film he could never have seen. Lastly, third-party contributors to the narrative are the "editors" of the final collected accounts of both narrators, who make their own footnotes on top of all this.
The film Zampano describes is The Navidson Record, the personal project of a famous photojournalist who's been haunted by thoughts of a dying girl he photographed in a war zone. Will Navidson has moved out of the city to a small house with his partner Karen Green and their two children in an effort to heal a crumbling relationship, and he sets about documenting their transition with cameras set up around the house. The family settles in, and as we learn about the nuanced tensions of the couple's relationship a discovery is made - the house measures a quarter inch larger on the inside than the outside. As the family tries to process this uncanny fact, a doorway appears that wasn't there before and within is the five and a half minute hallway.
The temperature is freezing inside the dark hallway, and Navidson is tormented by his the desire to explore its depths. Karen is debilitated by claustrophobia and begs him not to enter. At one point the children get lost deep in the unknown depths of the house, forcing Navidson to enter. After a small expedition of men become lost inside, Navidson himself plunges in to find them and explores how deep the otherworldly space goes. The text becomes experimental: spare on some pages, overlapping and rotated on others. The deeper Navidson goes into the abyss of the house, the more chaotic and poetic the layouts and text become.
I found this deliciously intriguing, and enjoyed running with my own imagination in this section. The more mystery the story built and maintained, the more invested I became, where usually interest wanes as plots become clearer and explanations surface. The deep darkness of the house drives its explorers to high anxiety - clothes deteriorate and the heavy silent pressure within seems to pull apart their bodies and minds. The narrative becomes meandering and disorienting, but in a wonderfully creepy way. You are in the dark maze with them, totally unsure of where to go, but on.
The reader has to decide if Zampano or Johnny are real or not. Did one invent the other? Who and what do you believe? At the end of the main narrative, we are presented with a series of letters to Johnny from his institutionalized mother. Within the narrative we are caused to question, Navidson is fiercely scrutinized and his documentary is considered to be a hoax, a fabrication that no one can prove either way. All the not-knowing is what makes this such a powerful read. I lost interest in Johnny's narrative the deeper I got into the main story, and only referenced it from time to time, but I think the beauty of this book is that it's a bit of a choose-your-own-adventure in a way. You can choose what to focus on, what to come back to, and in what order you want to read it in and have several different experiences with it.
House of Leaves was published in 2000, but I was passed a copy from a friend around 2008. Midway into the text some things seemed eerily familiar, and I suddenly was struck by a passage I knew I'd heard read aloud. Sure enough, it was a full passage of text from the song "Hey Pretty" from Poe's album Haunted, which I had bought and listened to heavily eight years prior.
Investigation revealed that Poe (Anne Decatur Danielewski) is Danielewski's sister, and the album was released at the same time as the book and contains many direct connections. One song is titled "5 & 1/2 Minute Hallway", there's another titled "Exploration B", a reference to Navidson's first recorded document of the inner abyss titled Exploration A. "Dear Johnny" is likely Johnny Truant, and "Hey Pretty" has a full account directly read from the text of the book by Danielewski himself over her arrangements. Poe's album deals more with the real death of the Danielewski sibling's father, and does not completely revolve around the House of Leaves novel, but is an unexpected surprise, and adds even more layers of intrigue to the mystery.