April 15th, 2009

cap, captain miss america

House of Leaves

cacophonesque was asked a question in her thebookyoucrew application. The question was:

Please to explain what you think is good about "House of Leaves"? You may NOT use the words/phrases "deconstruction", "meta-ANYTHING", "bold", or "outside-the box".

I am answering it here, because this is one of those things that people have actually asked me about a lot. House of Leaves is one of my favorite books for a lot of reasons, and none of them are the formal efforts put forward in the book. It always strikes me as funny when critics of the book only focus on this part of the story-- because I frankly think that the story in House of Leaves is much stronger.

shinyredtype asked me a while back if she should read it, specifically focusing on the question of whether the "meta" aspects of the story, and I remember writing this long explanation of why I think it's a beautiful story and how the story-within-a-story aspects worked for me to show how insidious the House was or something, and Kat asked me about the wonky page layouts.

And I was like, oh. I forgot that book had wonky page layouts. Which means maybe it didn't need them.

The formally novel (no pun intended) aspects of the book are not necessary to the story, but I don't think they distract (or detract) from it, either. Because, as a reader, you're meant to be reading texts created by various fictional characters, none of whom are completely sane, I think it makes sense. But I don't want to talk about those. I want to talk about the House.

quizzicalsphinx will tell you all about how very powerful Haunted House stories can be. Especially if you are talking about Shirley Jackson.

When I was a little girl, I used to have nightmares not about people or monsters, but about places. I used to have a recurring nightmare about the basement of my grandmother's house...which was not the real basement of her real house, but the nightmare basement of her nightmare house. My grandfather was an upholsterer, and the nightmare basement was entirely upholstered in black naugahyde. The black naugahyde had tears in it. If you stepped in one of the tears, you would sink down and down, like falling into quicksand. There was a woman-- a single mother-- who lived in the nightmare basement with her baby. There was also, past the naugahyde room, a wide, empty concrete vault, and at one end of the vault was a river with a boat shaped like a swan. I never saw where the river went.

I also used to have a recurring nightmare about my parents' bathroom. I would go into the bathroom to use it, and the door would shut and lock, and the lights would go out, and a terrible dark power that was probably something like the Echthroi in Madeleine L'Engle's books would descend on me.

The landscapes of my dreams were spatial impossibilities.

Those of you who've talked books with me probably know how I feel about Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Space, which is one of my favorite theoretical texts. He talks about how experience characterizes a space and about how spaces take on traits through their use and through our personal relationship to them. It is not a book about writing per se, but I think it has aided me in my writing more than any book about writing that I have read.

I have grown up enamored by the idea of spaces and places as characters. Anyone who is involved in theater or film will tell you how much the right scenery lends to the atmosphere of the story, and how much the wrong scenery can detract. A place-- the right place, written the right way, can be the most powerful character in a story.

That's what the house on Ash Tree Lane is. It is simultaneously a character and a place, and I think that Mark Danielewski does it better here, certainly than Stephen King does with the same premise in Rose Red. (Rose Red is a miniseries about a house that is supposedly "metastasizing," based largely on the story of the Winchester Mystery House but also drawing liberally from Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House) While similar tropes appear in other haunted house stories, the house is usually affected by some external force-- an angry ghost, the aftershocks of a tragedy. The house is just a vessel for something else, or, in some cases, reflective of the psyches of the people inside it. The House is a character in its own right-- it has feelings, wants, hungers. It reacts. It responds. It entices. It tricks people. It is sentient. It has its own agenda.

That-- the characterization of the House and how the power of its story takes hold on the other characters in the book-- is what I find to be the most profound aspect of the book. People in spaces. Spaces in people.