30 Days of Books: Day Six
Posted by Jen Moore
Day 06 – Favorite book of your favorite series OR your favorite book of all time
There’s that WORD again. Okay.
House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski has to be the most involved book I’ve ever read. (Well, it’s in competition with Melmoth the Wanderer, I suppose, but they are both doing the same sorts of things, and Melmoth‘s cultural frame of reference is more distant. So.) It is also one of the few horror novels I’ve ever read that I’ve been actually scared by.
I’m not sure how to go about summarizing the book, so I’ll tell the story about how I first read it instead. When I went to college, I expected to be an English major but ended up an anthropology major instead, but an anthro major who took a lot of English classes. My favorite professor was Lisa Haines-Wright, who taught in this kind of overwhelming flurry of enthusiasm and information that scared most people off and made others devoted to her for life. We were in a Gothic Literature class, reading something like 1000 pages a week in order to get through monstrosities like The Mysteries of Udolpho and Melmoth the Wanderer, and she got off on a tangent — I don’t think there was a single class period where she didn’t go off on some tangent or another — about House of Leaves.
Now, one of the points of gothic literature is that if you tell people not to look at something, it only makes them want it more. It’s where all the suspense in Udolpho comes in, this mystery of What Is Behind the Veil. So Lisa talked all the time about “veiling,” which is basically forbidding access to something in order to draw attention to it. (Lisa had some interesting things to say about the Garden of Eden story in this vein.) So when she said, “But don’t go out and try to read House of Leaves right now, you have enough to get through and that book is addictive,” she knew exactly what was going to happen. And I was the one who took the bait.
It is a terribly addictive book, not least because you develop the sense that if you can just finish reading it it will stop being creepy. This is not the case, by the way, and architectural anomalies will continue to haunt you forever after reading this book. It started out as a hypertext novel, and you can tell: there are at least three separate narratives, taking place simultaneously in different fonts and layouts. You can read them all at once or one straight through at a time, as you prefer.
I wouldn’t say that House of Leaves is a uniformly successful book, but it does do one thing very well, and that is play with the nature of reality. The different plotlines work in layers, so Johnny Truant’s plot is the closest to the reader, Zampáno’s is one step removed, and Will Navan’s is even further away than that. It leaves you uncertain as to what really happened at any stage of the game — which is what makes this such successful horror, because when you’re that confused as to what “really” happened, some of the upper layers of the narrative start bleeding into real life and before you know it you’re checking over your shoulder for Johnny’s monster. In the end, though, my favorite part about House of Leaves is that sense that you have that everything would all make sense if you could just get a picture of it all at once. I don’t think you actually can, but you feel like you can, which is what makes this book so addictive and re-readable. And, by the way, an excellent Halloween recommendation.