Halloween reading: ‘House of Leaves’

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In September this year, I joined a Facebook group called ‘The Backrooms’. Featured are pictures of recurring rooms, twisting hallways, the shells of monolithic buildings. Each image creates a vague sense of unease. Enclosed yet infinite, unknown yet familiar; it is hard to put your finger on quite what makes these ‘backrooms’ so unsettling. It is this sense of spatial distortion which defines my go-to Halloween novel: Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (published in 2000).

This sense of spatial distortion which defines my go-to Halloween novel

The thrust of the story begins when Will Navidson, upon returning from a trip with his family, finds that his house measures three-quarters of an inch longer on the inside than the outside. It appears farcical at first, as Navidson obsesses over explaining the extra nineteen millimetres. But there is no satisfactory solution. Danielewski expertly transforms the confusion of farce into a feeling of dread. With Navidson’s obsession growing and an increasing number of doors and passages appearing, we begin to fear for the security of the family. Revealed within the house are impenetrably dark anterooms, infinite staircases, and a maze of replicating walls. If you venture too far into these ‘backrooms’, wander for too long in these hallways, you might just hear a rumbling in the distance. . . a growling in the dark.

Spatial uncertainty is not reserved for horror. There is Doctor Who’s TARDIS: bright blue, quintessentially British, and bigger on the inside than the outside. Similar to this is the magician pulling endless handkerchiefs out of a pocket, or the clown car filled with implausible numbers of clowns. The key difference between these examples and House of Leaves is the perspective and atmosphere which Danielewski creates. Imagine being alone in a ‘backroom’ of the TARDIS with the lights shut off and the Doctor nowhere to be found. Imagine being in a magician’s pocket, surrounded by strangely familiar textures and waiting to be wrenched out by a clammy hand. Jesus, imagine being trapped in a clown car. (I hate clowns.)

The text itself is convincingly framed by the narrative of Johnny Truant, who finds a manuscript written by an academic called Zampanò. The manuscript turns out to be an academic study of a documentary film called ‘The Navidson Record’. Navidson’s story (the film) is thus filtered through Zampanò’s academic analysis, Truant’s obscene life story, the footnotes of an unnamed editor, and appendices of photos, letters, and poems. Whilst also being a satire of academia, the footnotes muse on what makes the house so disturbing. A particularly astute observation by Zampanò looks at Freud and Heidegger’s theories of the ‘uncanny’, noticing that in the original German it is ‘unheimlich’, which literally translates as ‘unhomely’. To me, this idea brings up Homebase’s 2014 slogan: “Make your house a home”. Perhaps the horror comes when your house cannot be made homely, when your domestic security is shattered by a sense of what was once yours becoming alien and uncanny.

Danielewski also experiments with the reading process, weaving his characters’ voices around each other

Danielewski also experiments with the reading process, weaving his characters’ voices around each other as the fonts change and orientate themselves in different formations on the page. In one section, there is one word per page, forcing you to turn the pages frantically in anticipation. Elsewhere, the pages are cramped with labyrinthine footnotes, causing you to literally get lost in the book. The connection between the material book and the labyrinth is not lost on Danielewski: the word minotaur is always highlighted in red – perhaps this makes Danielewski our Daedalus.

The novel does have its problems. It can be pretentious and meaninglessly vulgar. More problematic is its treatment of its female characters, often used as objects to drive the desires of the cis male narrators. A feminist reading is certainly overdue. 

This labyrinth does, however, have a heart. Central to the novel is the Navidson family. Like the house, the Navidsons change, revealing concealed interiors which they never knew existed. Danielewski’s ‘backrooms’ are perhaps so unsettling because they estrange close relationships and reveal hidden distances. He explores the analogue between emotional and physical proximity in relationships, demonstrating the importance of being close to those we love. His novel can perhaps be read most poignantly in the present day. After all, in these times, two meters can sometimes feel like infinity.

Image: Matthew T. Rader via Unsplash

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