A slice of Aronofsky’s “Pi”

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Truth is a complicated, abstract idea, and truth seekers come in all forms. Some search for truth in religion. Others do it through art. Some seek to find the truth within numbers.

Max Cohen, the protagonist of Darren Aronofsky’s debut film, Pi, is a man of the latter category. “One, mathematics is the language of nature,” he states. “Two, everything around us can be represented and understood through numbers.” Despite the urgings of his mentor, Sol, Max is a man driven by a quest for meaning – a man driven to the point of obsession, obsession with the very numbers he seeks the answer from, obsession that leads to hallucinations, paranoia and, by the startling conclusion of the film, a complete mental breakdown.

Pi is a dark, intelligent psychological thriller, with a tone and style somewhere between David Lynch’s Eraserhead and Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone. It’s a daring film that asks a profound question. A question that has haunted men for millennia, and that we may never find an easy answer to:

Is there meaning in life, nature and the universe—a pattern that brings it all together, perhaps? Or is everything simply chaos?

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Pi , like much of Aronofsky’s work (including the recent Noah) is an intense examination of a man’s search for God. It’s about a quest for truth. And like many similar quests in fiction – from Victor Frankenstein’s monster to Johnny Truant’s book obsession in Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves – the road that Max goes on is one fraught with deadly ramifications upon his psychological state, finally leading to a shocking ending that’s not easily forgotten.

Though Aronofsky has directed many films since 1998, Pi remains– to me, at least – his most fascinating work.

 

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The Top Ten Genre Adaptations/Sequels/Remakes that Hollywood Should Make

So hey, when are they gonna make the movie?

When it comes to genre fans – and I use the word “genre” here as an umbrella term, so that I can group all horror/sci-fi/fantasy/etc. properties under one roof –  we’ve all got our own ideas about which of our favorite properties should be put up on the big screen – or which properties should be rebooted, remade or just generally “fixed.”  For every horror fan clamoring for them to finally get off their asses and make an awesome, Jason-focused Friday the 13th flick  (ahem), there’s another one shouting that what Hollywood really needs to do is make a big-budget, Christoper Nolan-ized version of Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers.  So when one compiles a top ten list such as this one, I feel strongly that it’s best to chuck any attempt at objectivity out the window.  When one writes a top ten list like this, it’s incredibly silly that pretend that he or she is speaking for anyone other than himself or herself.

I mean, seriously?  The truth is, you’ll never find an objective top ten list.  Top ten lists are automatically subjective by their very nature; they exist as a way for us feeble mortals to make-believe that we have some kind of control over the universe, so much control, in fact, that we can actually organize it according to our whims.

So, without further ado, here is my highly subjective list of the top ten potential sci-fi/horror/fantasy/speculative/yadda-yadda-yadda properties that Hollywood should take under consideration:

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10. Brave New World, directed by Ridley Scott

When it comes to the great dystopian novels, I’ll admit that I’m highly partial to George Orwell’s 1984.  However, there’s a lot to be said for Aldous Huxley’s horrifically prophetic vision of a world consumed by its obsession with trivialities, drug-induced brainwashing and genetically-engineered test tube babies…and unlike 1984, which in the actual year of 1984 was marvelously adapted into a film starring John Hurt, there has yet to be a great adaption of Huxley’s novel.

Really, it’s a bit of a shock that this movie hasn’t happened yet.  In today’s world, where society is being consumed by wave after wave of mindlessly solipsistic Facebook statuses and Tweets, people spend most of their time amusing themselves instead of seeking out knowledge, actual human interaction is lowering and we’re coming closer and closer to becoming the genetically-engineered humans that Huxley envisioned in 1931, a Brave New World film could possibly open up the general public’s eyes about the inherent danger of what Huxley was warning us about, all those years ago.

Now, why do I name Ridley Scott as the director?  One – because Scott has previously expressed interest.  Two – because I can’t imagine a director who could possibly have a more interesting, more appropriate cinematic vision of Huxley’s world.  Considering that Scott is the man who directed such films as Alien, Blade Runner, Prometheus and the famous 1984 Apple Macintosh commercial, Brave New World would definitely be right up his alley.

So, that’s ten. What’s number nine?  Don’t worry, this is an obvious one…

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9.  Evil Dead 4, AKA Army of Darkness 2, AKA whatever the hell they want to call it

Yeah, that’s right.  I said Evil Dead Four—not Two.  While I actually was surprised by how much I enjoyed the Evil Dead remake, I still don’t really look at it as a true Evil Dead film. Let’s face it, while Evil Dead 1 might’ve been a “real” horror flick, for most of us Evil Dead fans, the film that really made us fall in love with this franchise was Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn, with its splattery combination of horror, scathing satire and Three Stooges-style slapstick.

Now, even though Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness are easily two of my favorite movies of all time, there’s a reason that this one is relatively low on my highly subjective top ten list; because really, we don’t need an Evil Dead 4.  Sam Raimi’s original Evil Dead trilogy actually stands pretty well on its own; there’s a definitive character arc for Ash Williams, and the way that the franchise cleverly slides from all-out horror to goofy, Ray Harryhausen-style pastiche is really quite brilliant.

If Sam Raimi does ever move ahead on a proposed fourth movie (which has been “in the workings” for the last two decades) and stays faithful to the quirky low-budget feel of the original three, then I’ll definitely be in the front row…but as it is, I’m pretty happy with the original trilogy, as is.

So, no, the fans don’t need an Evil Dead 4.  But do we want it?  Hell yeah, we do.

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8. Martian Manhunter

So, here’s one that’s  totally out of left field.

Yes, I know that this might seem bizarrely random.  Most people will only recognize this green-skinned Martian shapechanger – real name J’onn J’onnz – from the Justice League cartoon.  Even in the comics, Martian Manhunter is primarily known only as a member of the team, and his individual comic appearances are pretty limited.   DC Comics has never really given Martian Manhunter much of a chance to strike out on his own; since the New 52 event, he’s even been exiled from the Justice League!

However, there’s a tremendous amount of untapped potential in this character – and I think that film is absolutely the proper medium for him.  Why?  How can they do it?  You wanna know?  Okay, I’ll tell you how to make a badass Martian Manhunter movie on a low budget, and how make it sell:

Focus on Detective John Jones.

For those of us who aren’t serious comic geeks, I’ll explain:  back in his earlier appearances (and occasionally in the years afterward, as well as in his TV appearances on Smallville) Martian Manhunter, as a shapeshafter, took on the “earthling” identity of a detective named John Jones.

So then, my proposal is this; make a dark, gritty, noir-style detective story starring Detective Jones, where everything at first seems down-to-earth, realistic and suitably Nolan-ized.  This way, it will fit perfectly within the post-Man of Steel DC film universe  –and then slowly, carefully, allow the sci-fi elements to bleed into the narrative, as the film slowly unveils the fact that Jones’ actual identity is J’onn J’onnzz, an alien, and that he has come to Earth for a very specific reason.  From here, we can reveal that the seemingly “realistic” world we’ve been inhabiting up until this point isn’t quite what it seems.

…and that, my friends, is how you make a Martian Manhunter movie work.

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7. Duke Nukem

These days, ol’ Duke Nukem’s street reputation isn’t necessarily in the best shape around; the misogynistic, stogie-smokin’, ultimate action hero stereotype has been a bit wounded ever since the development cycle of Duke Nukem Forever passed the ten year mark.

However, DNF aside, there’s no denying that in the 90s, Duke Nukem 3D was one of the best games around; back when its contemporaries  were still imitating the dark, space station corridors of Doom, 3D Realms was blowing the competition away with its combination of gut-busting humor, real life settings, startling interactivity (“I can use the pool table? I can use the urinal?!”) and a central character who – unlike the vast majority of computer game protagonists – couldn’t keep his mouth shut.  Duke was always full of one-liners after one-liners, simultaneously mocking and celebrating all of the action movies he was playing homage to.

As a movie, Duke Nukem would be pretty tough to successfully adapt; the biggest risk I can see is that filmmakers might allow the material to be too goofy, humorous and/or lewd, to the point where it became unwatchable.  What made Duke 3D work so well – and what most of the Duke games that have come afterward seem to forget – is that while Duke himself was certainly a ridiculous character, the alien invasion taking place around him was a lot darker—and even scary, at points.

No, to make a Duke Nukem movie work, what we need is some like Paul Verhoeven – or at the very least, someone who can master that Verhoeven-esque approach to these sorts of action movies.  Why?  Because in many ways, Duke 3D is like a video game version of a Verhoeven sci-fi movie. Verhoeven was the director of Robocop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers, all three of which are highly satirical and at times quite humorous, yet always maintain just enough seriousness to make the threat still be menacing.  If Duke ever hits the silver screen, that’s exactly the kind of approach that’ll make it really shine.

Photograph by Wilfried Bauer.

Photograph by Wilfried Bauer.

6. At The Mountains of Madness

Guillermo Del Toro (the director of Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy and Pacific Rim) has been fighting to make this happen for years; it’s one of those “seems too good to be true” scenarios, but God, let’s keep our fingers crossed.

The many works of H.P. Lovecraft, though widely celebrated in horror circles across the world, have been largely untouched by cinema…largely because, for the most part, they’re pretty unfilmable. Lovecraft’s cold, wordy prose –  and his “monsters” that are more likely to drive men insane with a mere glance than they are to slash through horny teenagers – would be extremely difficult to successfully transfer to celluloid without betraying their essence.  Sure, Re-Animator was awesome, but the original Herbert West: Re-Animator story was extremely different from Lovecraft’s other stories to begin with, and the film’s success was due less to Lovecraft than to it being a wonderfully dark, cynical tribute to 50s horror/sci-fi flicks.

At the Mountains of Madness, though, has enormous potential on the big screen.  Compared to Lovecraft’s shorter works, Mountains of Madness has a far more developed storyline, a number of fascinatingly creepy visuals and a very unique vision that’s about as Lovecraftian as a Lovecraft tale can get.  There’s probably no better director for this than Del Toro, but since Del Toro’s efforts to film this have been fraught with peril, and he seems to have several dozen different projects on his plate at any given time, the chances of this movie happening – at least in the near future – seem pretty slim.

Art by Bernie Wrightson.

Art by Bernie Wrightson.

5. A REAL Frankenstein movie

Yeah, you heard me.  Don’t get me wrong, the 1931 James Whale film is a classic – a classic that I still watch today.  But it has almost nothing to do with Mary Shelley’s original novel.

And I know what you’re thinking; didn’t Kenneth Branagh’s movie faithfully translate the book?  Well, not really.  Sure, it followed the storyline more faithfully than any Frankenstein movie before it, at times almost down to the letter – but in doing this, Branagh’s film completely and utterly sacrificed the dark, gothic tone of the original work.  This isn’t a minor point, because while the film is faithful to the novel on a surface level, all of the content’s meaning, passion and importance is stripped away from it.  Sure, the Branagh film follows the same plot points as the novel, but it rushes through them so quickly – in a blurry deluge of bad acting, bright colors and over-the-top sequences – that I find it hard to imagine that any Mary Shelley diehards were particularly satisfied.

No, I think it’s time that we finally had a real, authentic Frankenstein movie.  A movie that’s true to the spirit of the book, highlighting the classic Prometheus-inspired themes and capturing the tortured nature of Shelley’s protagonist, Victor Frankenstein.

Visually, it seems obvious to me that the movie should take inspiration from the gothic, ink-heavy drawings of Bernie Wrightson (see above image).  No artist has better captured the novel’s eerie atmosphere, and his depiction of the creature is easily the best ever; just imagine Wrightson’s monster with hideous yellow skin, grinning fiendishly as it quietly stalks the Arctic mountains.  Seriously, the visuals alone could be breathtaking.

This is another project that Guillermo Del Toro has mentioned quite a bit, dangling it before our eyes like a rare coin.  C’mon, Guillermo.  Let’s make it happen.

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4. Deathlok

This is a total shot in the dark, I know.  Deathlok, though he’s easily one of the most fascinating antiheroes in Marvel Comics history, is a fairly obscure character.  Over the years, Deathlok has been sidelined, forgotten about or mucked around with many times, but the central concept has never lost its potency.

Created in the 1970s – and thus predating such popular franchises as the Terminator, Robocop and Neuromancer – the early Deathlok comic books told the story of Luther Manning, a soldier who is killed in action, only to reawaken when his mind is placed in the body of a ruthless killing machine.   Now wandering through the ruins of New York City in a horrifying, post-apocalyptic future, Deathlok rebels against his programming and takes the fight for freedom back to his corporate tormentors.

So, how can Marvel Studios make this work as a movie?

Hire me to write the script, that’s how!  But in all seriousness, while I recognize the unlikelihood of this movie ever happening (especially with that Robocop remake on the horizon), I think that a Deathlok film could make an excellent addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  The technological, transhumanist themes that Deathlok explores are very rooted in contemporary fears, concerns and lifestyles.  We’re all slowly becoming cyborgs, but is it right for this to happen? Should we allow technology to infiltrate every aspect of our lives, and if we do, are we still human beings?

My suggestion?  Take cues from the excellent 2010 limited series, Deathlok: The Demolisher, but focus more on Luther’s humanity than the comic did.   Deathlok is an amazing sci-fi movie just waiting to happen; hopefully someday, the right executive will be brave enough to take a chance on it.

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3. I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream

Originally published in 1967, Harlan Ellison’s post-apocalyptic short story is one of the darkest, most unrelentingly brutal science fiction stories of all time.  Set in the future, I Have No Mouth  tells the story of AM – a highly-emotional, brilliant supercomputer that gains consciousness and, in a fit of rage, uses it to completely obliterate the human race.  Still not satisfied, AM spares only four men and one woman from this mass genocide, and proceeds to subject these five people to a variety of hellish tortures—both physical and psychological—keeping them alive for over a century of pain, suffering and guilt.  AM doesn’t have any master plan.  He’s not the classic cool, calculating, methodical machine that most science fiction stories depict.  No, he’s just angry.  He’s already destroyed the human race and the tortures he conducts on these five remaining humans – Ted, Benny, Ellen, Gorrister and Nimdok – is nothing more than the final stage of a long, drawn out, pointless revenge.

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream is one of the most horrifying science fiction stories of its kind.  Movies likes Cube, Saw and the like owe Ellison’s tale a great debt; it was certainly an enormous inspiration for me when I wrote my 2011 novella, EnslavementWhile there might be budgetary concerns, I think that with a thrifty director and a great cast, this could be an edgy science fiction thriller for the ages.

Now, as far as expanding the short story into a full movie, and giving it a proper narrative arc?  There’s an easy solution for that: follow the game.  By that, I mean the excellent 1995 computer game of the same name which, with supervision from Ellison himself, was a terrific adaptation of the novel and easily  one of the most underrated point-and-click adventure games of the 90s.  The game provides an excellent blueprint for how to expand the characters and where to take the plot.  The game fills in the back story for all five characters, showing us how each of them has deep, personal flaws that made them attractive to AM – particularly Nimdok, who is revealed to be a former Nazi scientist.

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2. David Lynch’s The Metamorphosis

Oh come on, this is obvious!  A match made in heaven!  How has it possibly not happened yet?

Franz Kafka’s famously surreal short story – the depressing tale of Gregor Samsa, a man who wakes up as a gigantic insect and is subsequently mistreated by the very family he once worked so hard for – is the sort of bizarre tale that seems made for the director of such surrealistic works as Eraserhead, Blue Velvet and and Dumbland.  It’s not just the premise, it’s the execution.  Much like Lynch’s work, The Metamorphosis doesn’t overly dramatize its insane premise; it presents it very matter-of-factly, never trying to explain it.  It treats Gregor Samsa’s mutation much as if he had suddenly became infected with leprosy or AIDS.

So, why hasn’t this happened yet?  Well…I wouldn’t totally rule it out.

As it turns out, David Lynch has actually been attracted to Kafka’s story for a long, long time.  In fact, he actually wrote a script for it all the way back in the early 80s.  He has demonstrated interest in resuming the project a number of times, but never committed himself due to such concerns as budget, a desire to revise his script and so on.

So hey, maybe it’ll happen someday.  We can hope.   In the meantime, as we cross our fingers, here are Mr. Lynch’s own thoughts on the subject:

“It’s a story that millions of people have read and about a hundred-thousand people have written about, and each one has seen it from a slightly different angle. But…it’s just rich with things. But there’s a certain kind of dark humor that I love about Kafka and it is his stuff that thrills me to my soul. It’s just a completely perfect mood and story and characters. I like pretty nearly everything about it.”

– David Lynch

 

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Art by Jae Lee.

1. The Dark Tower

And finally, we come to this…as if anything else could have taken the top spot.

This one has almost happened a number of times, but no one’s yet had the guts to pull the trigger, and it’s easy to understand why.  Stephen King’s enormous, seven book fantasy/horror/sci-fi epic, the Dark Tower series has the potential to be the next huge Hollywood franchise – but if it isn’t done absolutely perfectly, it could also be the next devastating flop.

The series is Stephen King’s magnum opus, his great epic, and it not only ties together all of his work – from The Stand  to Salem’s Lot – but it also manages to reference such diverse sources as The Wizard of Oz, Doctor Doom and Harry Potter.  It’s an undertaking that would intimidate any filmmaker.  It has all of the potential to be the next Lord of the Rings, if the producers play their cards right.

If.  That’s the key word: if. The Dark Tower is a series that they really, really can’t afford to mess up, so the fact that everyone in Hollywood is stepping very carefully around is honestly a very good sign.

I’m sure it’ll happen someday.  It might be five years from now, or ten, but I have no doubt that at some point we’ll see Roland chasing the man in black through the desert.  It’s just a question of when that happens…and really, if we want to see the magnificent adaptation that these books deserve, let’s hope they don’t rush it.

 

So, there’s my attempt at numbering reality.  Thoughts?  comments?  Your own highly subjective top ten lists?  Fire away!

-Nicholas Conley

The Writer’s Role in Society

For writers, self-doubt is something we’re all too familiar with.  It’s unavoidable, really.  Whereas most careers are built on concrete evidence and a clear end goal for each day, writers usually operate from a sort of murky, hazy subconscious desire.  Our goals are driven by a mysterious voice that sometimes chooses to speak to us…and sometimes doesn’t.

Really, it makes sense.  After all, a professional fiction writer is someone who gets paid to make stuff up.  It’s a thoroughly exhausting job that takes a long, long time, and usually offers the writer very little financial reward.  Writers aren’t writers because we desire worldwide fame and lucrative amounts of money: we’re writers because we’re passionate about writing, and because we have something we want to say to the world.

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So, let’s ask the obvious question.  In a world full of such varied and highly essential careers as doctors, nurses, architects and police officers, why is writing fiction still important?

Put bluntly, what is the writer’s role in society?

This question goes beyond the simple entertainment value of a good story.  It also goes beyond the symbiotic relationship that’s experienced between a writer and his/her reader.  Not that this symbiosis is unimportant – in fact, for the writer and the reader themselves, that relationship is probably the most important thing – but  it’s not what we’re discussing here.  No, our focus here is on what the writer’s role to society is.  What does the writer bring to the world that no on else can?

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My answer is this: writers and storytellers are the individuals who have designated themselves with the daunting task of recreating the time, place and characters of whatever era they live in. I feel that this is especially the case when it comes to fiction; while an encyclopedia entry about the 1990s might fill in the details, it doesn’t paint a picture.  A novel written during the 1990s, on the other hand, can definitively show the flavor of the time, the voices that were most important, and the subconscious fears that drove that generation’s actions.  The different fiction genres each demonstrate a unique facet of the writer’s society.  A horror writer will memorialize the discomforts of his era.  A science fiction writer will demonstrate that era’s views on technology.  A literary writer, of course, will display what everyday life was really like.

By writing a novel, the writer acts to keep his/her era alive for future generations, so that our children and grandchildren can understand who we really were, and what we stood for.

But there’s more to it than that.  Much more.  By nature, writers are teachers.  Again, writers write because they have something to say to the world.  They have a lesson to teach, a lesson so important to them – be it for moral, intellectual, idealistic or cynical reasons – that they’ve sculpted an entire story for the sheer purpose of teaching that lesson.   To demonstrate this point, a few examples are listed below:

Art by Bernie Wrightson.

Art by Bernie Wrightson.

Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, is the first novel to question the idea of creating life through scientific means.  While Shelley’s concepts have been used in millions of subsequent stories – from movies such as Splice to novels like Galatea 2.2Frankenstein was the first novel of its kind.  The moral questions that Frankenstein ponders are troubling, so troubling that we continue to ask these same questions today. As we, the readers, become absorbed in the story of Victor Frankenstein’s rise and fall, and then, as we find our sympathies slowly drifting toward the murderous creature, we are forced to realize that the act of creation is never the end of a process.  Once you have created life – creation of life being the ultimate, divine task – you have the responsibility to care for that life, and by not doing so you become responsible for whatever that thing you’ve created turns into.

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Broom of the System, by David Foster Wallace, teaches us about the way that we use words and language to frame our society and our actions.  The novel questions the notion of free will, while demonstrating how one can use words to dominate other people; Wallace shows how well-constructed words can enslave one person to another person’s ideas, no matter how irrational those ideas may be.  Are we real people, or simply linguistic constructs, characters in someone’s novel?  Is there a difference between the two, really?  This is the question that Wallace’s protagonist, Lenore Beadsman, must ask herself.  As the readers of her story, we are forced to ask ourselves the same question, forcing us to learn more about ourselves in a way we would never dare to outside of the constructs of a fictional story.

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George Orwell’s 1984, the ultimate dystopian masterpiece, is a story that has radically changed the way we think about the government and our society.  Yes, words like “newspeak” and “groupthink” have become part of our lexicon.  But more importantly, what Orwell’s terrifying vision gave us was a terrible awareness of humanity’s own ability to crush itself.

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Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes shows us that under the wrong conditions, knowledge can be a dangerous thing.  Through an experimental scientific procedure, the developmentally disabled Charlie Gordon is transformed from a blissfully unaware bakery worker with an IQ of 68 into a cunning genius, and the result of this new intelligence is gut-wrenching pain and isolation. In a society so driven by the pursuit of knowledge and interpersonal connections, Keyes makes us reconsider notions that we previously thought of as unspoken truths.

Questions.  Plot.  Characters. Morals.  Story.  Style.  All of these things are tools within the writer’s cabinet, used – often subconsciously – to craft his or her statement about the world, and to reach the minds of others.  We write for ourselves, yes.  But more importantly, we write so that our voices will be heard by those who desire our message.

Photo from January 2010.

Photo from January 2010.

So, with all that said, time for some big news.  I’ve finally completed work on the manuscript for my second novel!

Now, of course, this doesn’t mean I’m out of the woods.  Not quite yet.  While the exhausting first part of the process is now complete – and by first part, I mean writing and editing the whole thing –  this only means that it’s now time to, you know, get the novel out there.  Publication is a  very lengthy, detailed process, so it’ll be some time before any future updates on that front.  But as soon as news is available, I’ll definitely make sure to keep you guys updated!

Anyway, I’ll tell you one thing: I’m excited as hell.  While writing my first novel, The Cage Legacy, was certainly a heartwrenching experience – an experience that took many years, as detailed in my post “Why I wrote The Cage Legacy” – I can honestly say that the hard work that went into writing novel #2 has actually managed to surpass that of the first.  The creation of this new novel has been, by far, the most challenging, ambitious and emotionally-draining writing experience I’ve ever had, and I’m proud of what it’s become.  I can’t wait to share it with you guys.

-Nicholas Conley

House of Leaves: Frankenstein’s Disturbed Grandchild

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.

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Bernie Wrightson’ s depiction of the creature.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Uh…what?

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.

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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?

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“The Ash Yggdrasil” by Friedrich Wilhelm Heine.

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.

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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.

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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.

-Nicholas Conley