Little solace comes
to those who grieve
when thoughts keep drifting
as walls keep shifting
and this great blue world of ours
seems a house of leaves
moments before the wind
– Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves, pg. 563
Let’s talk about Frankenstein. Yes, Frankenstein. Not the James Whale/Boris Karloff version that the world is more familiar with—no, we’re talking about the original novel, all the way back in 1818. Let’s talk about how even an almost 200-year-old piece of fiction can still have a direct influence upon a postmodern work of ergodic literature like Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves.
Ready? Let’s go.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Mary Shelley’s classic 1818 novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, other than the groundbreaking story, has always been the unique presentation of that story. Instead of opting for a linear point of view, Shelley instead chooses to utilize a series of unreliable narrators, each character with his own remarkably biased opinion.
Of course, most of you literature geeks know the basics by heart; Frankenstein begins in epistolary form with the narration of Robert Walton, captain of an exploratory mission into the Arctic Circle, as he writes letters to his sister in England. Walton is an ambitious man; this journey into the Arctic is a quest for knowledge, fame and fortune. However, the focus of Walton’s letters suddenly shifts when his crew discovers a half-dead man out on the ice—a man named Victor Frankenstein.
As he slowly recovers, Frankenstein tells Walton his story. But here’s where things start getting questionable; Victor’s story—the familiar tale of him creating his monster—is conveyed to us only through Walton’s letters. This means that we, as the readers, are twice removed from the action; we have no choice but to trust Walton’s version of the events that Frankenstein tells him. The reliability of this would be iffy enough, but eventually, Victor reaches a point in his account where he encounters the creature, years after its creation. The creature–who in the book, is highly eloquent—now relays his tortured tale to Frankenstein, who relays it to Walton, who relays it to us. While Victor paints a horrifying portrait of the creature—referring to it with such names as the wretch—the creature’s actual testimony implies that he has a less monstrous nature than Victor believes, suggesting that Victor’s bias against the creature may be greatly influencing his description of the events. But by this point, who knows? By this point, the reader is literally reading a story within a story within a story, three steps removed.
While this method of storytelling does take away from some sense of immediacy, it functions as an ingenious way to show parallels between all three narrators—Walton, Frankenstein and the creature—who are all demonstrated to be driven, ambitious men, men who are undone by their own passions. They are highly-flawed men, who in the pursuit of their dreams, fail to consider the consequences that their actions will have on the lives of others. Frankenstein is a tri-fold Greek tragedy, and while the prose can sometimes seem a bit dated to the modern reader, it still stands today as possibly the most important work of horror literature in history.
Now, this brings us to the central focus of our discussion.
Mark Z. Danielewski’s 2000 debut novel House of Leaves is, at its heart, the spiritual successor to Mary Shelley’s masterpiece. House of Leaves takes Shelley’s fractured narrative, sets the charge and blows it up into a decidedly postmodern jigsaw puzzle.
…and holy hell, is it fucking scary.
Like 2012’s Cabin in the Woods, Danielewski’s meta-fictional techniques break through the clichés to create characters that the reader truly cares about and feels frightened for. Like the excellent, highly clever YouTube web series Marble Hornets—a series where the YouTube uploads taking place on the account are actually a part of the storyline—the novel uses its own existence as a tool to frighten. And it did all of this back in 2000.
Yeah, yeah. But c’mon, what’s it ABOUT?
Trying to summarize a work as intricately complicated as House of Leaves is a near-impossible task; in fact, that’s kind of the whole point of the book, but we’ll talk about that later. But for now, let’s focus on the fractured narrative.
In HoL, our primary connection to the events is Johnny Truant, an artistic 20-something partygoer who’s currently wasting his life away in a haze of pot, ecstasy, alcohol and frequent one-night-stands. One gets the impression that beneath it all, Johnny is actually a fairly intelligent guy—but due to his lack of self-confidence, he tends to portray himself as being far less articulate than he really is. Anyway, Johnny—who is supposedly writing to us, the readers—explains in the book’s introduction how he has recently stumbled upon the scattered manuscript of a blind, hermitic old man named Zampanò, who is now deceased. Zampanò evidently spent much of his life dedicated to the writing of this manuscript; its remains are strewn about all over his apartment. It’s a work that is years in the making, but he never had the chance to assemble it together. He died before he could—and to make things even weirder, his corpse was discovered next to a mysterious claw mark on the floor.
Johnny tells us that he has undertaken the enormously daunting task of putting together this manuscript, bit by bit, for our reading pleasure. Seems harmless enough. A fun hobby to kill the time. But Johnny soon finds out that the situation might be more than he bargained for.
As it turns out, Zampanò’s manuscript is a lengthy film analysis of a documentary titled The Navidson Record, which depicts the eerie “real life” story of a family that moves into a new house—only to find out that the house is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. In fact, the house contains a dark, labyrinthine series of rooms and hallways, hallways that defy every law of physics known to man. Zampanò’s analysis—which is the main body of HoL—is highly-detailed, descriptive and chockfull of footnotes. Many of these footnotes reference other people’s critiques on the film, citing everyone from Douglas Hofstadter to Stephen King. Here’s the problem; as Johnny finds out, despite all of this alleged hubbub that Zampanò refers to, The Navidson Record doesn’t actually exist.
So, as the readers, we now find ourselves reading Zampanò’s analysis of a fictional documentary, with hundreds of fictional footnotes. Johnny – who, keep in mind, is also fictional—communicates to us through his own footnotes, which sometimes go on for multiple pages. Johnny sometimes comments on the manuscript, sometimes explains parts of it or questions inconsistencies, but for the most part he tends to go off on long tangents about his latest drug-fueled adventures—not to mention the nightmares he’s been experiencing since he first undertook this project. But wait, there’s more! In addition to Zampanò’s footnotes and Johnny’s footnotes, later in the book we are also suddenly presented with footnotes from a third editor, who one would assume is Mark Z. Danielewski; this third editor writes to correct and/or expound upon Johnny’s footnotes.
Not done yet. In addition to all of this, we soon find out that Johnny is a compulsive liar. In his tangents, he freely admits to making up long, extensive back stories for himself as a way to get women into bed with him. Sometimes, in the narrative, he describes entire scenes of his life before admitting to us that he just made these scenes up on the spot. And worst of all…Johnny demonstrates several times that he’s perfectly happy to make arbitrary changes to Zampanò’s manuscript, adding another layer of fiction onto the fiction already presented to us.
At this point, we start to ask ourselves; what’s actually real anymore? Is Zampanò real, or did Johnny make him up, too? Is The Navidson Record real? Is the house real? Is the very book we’re holding real? House of Leaves challenges our perception of reality. It forces us to question our surroundings—and it does this by being a stunningly experimental work of ergodic literature.
Yes, ergodic literature.
What do I mean by that? Put it this way. The sheer act of reading this book (which is, in most books, a fairly straightforward process) requires a significant amount of participation from the reader. HoL is like a “book” as seen through a fun house mirror. That means, yes—it has upside down pages. Backwards text that requires the use of a mirror. Multiple page footnotes, that leads to other footnotes, occasionally creating a frustrating loop. Pages full of text are interrupted by long stretches of mostly blank pages, with as little as one or two words to a page. Remember Marshall McLuan’s The Medium is the Massage? Yeah, kind of like that, but taken to the extreme.
The intricacies never end; for example, why is there a check mark next to that one random paragraph in the middle of the book? Why is the word house always written in blue? Why are there extensive passages about a minotaur—passages that are invariably always crossed out? What is the “growl,” exactly? Is “Mr. Monster” real? Did it kill Zampanò? Does the mention of Yggrdrasil—which, in Norse mythology, is the giant tree that connects all nine worlds—hint toward the idea of alternate realities? If so, is that the secret that links all of these bizarre narratives together?
In the wrong hands, all of the book’s tricks could be empty. They could all be hollow exercises in style, meaningless postmodern mockery. But that’s the fantastic thing about HoL; it’s not just a gimmick. Everything has a purpose. Because, well…hey, remember that house? The Navidson house?
What if I told you that the book itself is the house?
How so? Well, let’s look at the house itself again, and go from there. The house that Danielewski depicts is a nightmarish concept, the sort of subversive device that great horror stories are built upon – a twisted mutilation of our notion of “home,” stretched to the absolute breaking point. We become very attached to the places we live—especially our family home—to the point where we consider it to be a part of us, a part of our family. We forget that the house is often older than we are; other people have lived there, slept there and fought there. No matter how much money you pay for it, a house will never truly belong to you.
This seditious fact is disconcertingly emphasized by the black, lightless, horrifyingly minimalistic labyrinth underneath the Navidson house—an extensive series of constantly-shifting rooms, somewhat similar in concept to the train I depicted in my 2011 novella, Enslavement. The idea that the familiarly warm, happy home could be so contaminated by the existence of such an unfathomable maze, located just behind a single door in the living room, is the sort of material that the worst nightmares are sewn from.
The house isn’t really a house; it just looks like one from the outside. Now, let’s come back to the notion of the book. With all of its weird layout tricks and bizarre formatting, House of Leaves isn’t really a novel anymore, is it? Not in the traditional sense, anyway. It just looks like one, from the outside. The book—like the house—defies logic, defies structure, defies categorization. The science of the house is seemingly unexplainable; likewise, certain components of the book sometimes appear irrational. What does it all mean? Is there an answer?
Well, yes, but it’s not a solvable answer. Figuring out the truth behind the house’s existence is portrayed to be much like scientifically proving the existence of God; the truth is, an entity like the house is simply far beyond our limited capacity for understanding. The book clearly has meaning—it’s filled with layer after layer of meaning—but as the reader, you are put in a position where you’re incapable of ever truly finding the answers you seek.
And with that notion in mind, we arrive at the central point of House of Leaves. Even when there is an answer—even when we know that the answer is out there – sometimes, the truth is simply beyond our grasp, and all of our attempts to apply human logic and scientific reasoning to such a thing will only result in us deviating further and further away from that truth. Our thirst for comprehension is our greatest strength, but it’s also our undoing. To quote the book itself –
Finally when Karen does turn around to discover the real emptiness waiting behind her, she does not scream. Instead her chest heaves, powerless for a moment to take anything in or expel anything out. Oddly enough as she starts to retreat from the children’s bedroom, it almost looks as if something catches her attention. A few minutes later, she returns with a halogen flashlight and steps toward the edge.
Hanan Jabara suggests Karen heard something, though there is nothing even remotely like a sound on the Hi 8. Carlos Ellsberg agrees with Jabara: “Karen stops because of something she hears.” Only he qualifies this statement by adding, “the sound is obviously imagined. Another example of how the mind, any mind, consistently seeks to impose itself upon the abyss.”
Sometimes, no matter how hard you try to find an answer—no matter what experiments you conduct, no matter how hard you search—something like the Navidson house simply EXISTS. We can’t force our imperfect human ideas upon such a supernatural entity; we can’t make it play by our rules. If we attempt to contain such an entity inside the flimsy boundaries of human understanding, it will only lead to our downfall.
That was Zampanò’s mistake. It’s also the tragic flaw in the mindsets of both Will Navidson (the protagonist in The Navidson Record) and our editor, Johnny Truant. Each of these three men walk the same dangerous road; each man’s ambition drives them to the point of obsession.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It sounds a lot like Victor Frankenstein.
In this light, when one puts House of Leaves next to Frankenstein, the parallels becomes self-evident. This is especially true when it comes to the characters. The three “heroes” in House of Leaves are very much mirror versions of Frankenstein’s classic triumvirate; Johnny is Captain Walton, Zampanò is Victor Frankenstein, and Will Navidson is the creature.
Both novels tell the same basic story, through similarly unconventional methods. It’s a classic, archetypical story; it’s the story of Prometheus, the story of Adam and Eve, the Tower of Babel, or even horror flicks like The Fly. It’s the tale of how man tries to recreate the laws of the universe in his image—he tries to be God—and how this egotistical act leads his downfall. Many of us can relate to this story; all writers, artists, scientists and philosophers are very familiar with the delicate line a creator must walk on in one’s search for truth. It’s a slippery slope.
Knowledge is our greatest asset. It’s also our greatest weakness. We’re all capable of creating our own Frankenstein’s monsters—but maybe someday, we’ll learn from our mistakes.