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House of Leaves
cap, captain miss america
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.

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I would like to have something insightful to say about that book, but my reading of it was distracted by the way it made me afraid of my walls.

That's what copious measuring-tapes are for.

And zombie minions.

Ever since I taught The Haunting of Hill House, I haven't been able to bring myself to read any other haunted house story. The book is incredible, but I don't mean to imply that it "ruined" me for other books or anything -- just that it creeped me out so effectively on my second reading (not even the first!) that I get the heebie-jeebies about haunted house stories.

Edited at 2009-04-15 08:09 pm (UTC)

Hahahaha you need to talk to quizzicalsphinx, the resident Shirley Jackson fan. I didn't really get that, but I am also not creeped out by...well, anything that isn't Twin Peaks. I think in terms of stories where the house reflects the psyche of the people within it, Jackson does it better than anyone. It's a little hard with House of Leaves because it isn't really a "haunted house" story in that the house is not haunted. The house is growing. In a lot of ways it's more-- I'm trying to think of the right way to put this. You know how there is the trope in fiction of the hero's journey and the whole concept that sometimes you have to go out into the world to understand something inside yourself? House of Leaves stands that concept on its head and suggests that you have to go deeper within to understand the world outside.

I love this post! This is one of my favorite books, and while I did enjoy the strange format because I found it aesthetically pleasing, mostly I just enjoyed how fucking scared the House made me. I couldn't sleep for awhile, even though I was 18 when I read it.

*facepalm* I knew I was forgetting one of my favorite books on my libraholics application because I was using my Goodreads account to try and remember books, and I read House of Leaves long before Goodreads was a thing. Ah, well.

I haven't read it yet, mostly because some impossibly pretentious people have used it as an excuse to rub their pretention all over my face, and I am dis-pleased by it. One of the most pretentious things about it, apart from the air of intense mysterious mystery people take on while talking about it (this is the most down-to-earth review I've heard so far), is the whole blue text in the title thing. What is with that--or will it spoil the book?

It won't give anything away, but I don't think it's pretentious.

The problem with the book is that a lot of the tropes used in it are things that may be pretentious in another context, but the book is meant to be like a found object. It's printed that way because it's a text of a text of a text; how the book is presented is part of the story, if that makes any sense. Who is writing informs how the story is presented at any given time. This isn't the kind of thing that would work with many other stories-- in this one, it does.

I think, in part, House is blue for the same reason that a house can be a character a novel-- a color, added to a word, changes the meaning of the word. In this case, it evokes The House of Blue Leaves, which should be evoked anyway simply by the title being so similar, and there is a connection between the characters and places in the play The House of Blue Leaves and this book. I don't want to give those away because those may spoil you.

There is also some importance given to color in the book-- the narrator is a tattoo artist and it comes up in his discourse. I think that you do not need the colored text-- the colored text wasn't in the first paperback edition, which is the one I have-- but it does actually have implications above and beyond just being pretentious.

Oh, it also bears mentioning that there are other words in color in some editions of the book. It's not just "house."

Edited at 2009-04-16 12:57 am (UTC)

I'll echo dragonmagelet in saying that the pretentious fannish air around the book put me off it. People all coloring in the word, assuring me avidly that it was the scariest thing they've ever read and will ever read -- is it just me or is there a bit of posturing to that, sometimes? I think people of a certain set are a lot more willing to cite a book like House of Leaves as Scariest Ever than admit that the alien bursting out of the guy's stomach in Alien actually scared them more than anything. People like the term "psychological horror," it's cerebral -- conventional horror films are mockable, lowbrow, ridiculous, how could you get scared by something ridiculous. Well, I gotta say it doesn't matter how ridiculous it is, some big nasty jumping the fuck out at me on a movie screen is not a pleasant experience. Neither is seeing a human body with any kind of horrible thing done to it. It's cheap shock value, but it works. I hate horror films, but as far as scary goes, the badly made up girl crawling out of the TV in The Ring does it for me a lot harder than House of Leaves.

However, I hate being scared. Though I did only find House of Leaves kind-of-creepy, I liked it. I'm not gonna say it changed my life or anything, but it was well-written, atmospheric, and just plain cool. I love frame tale stuff, I like documents-within-works, I enjoyed the whole thing a lot. I admit I found Karen and Navidson's relationship and reactions to the house a bit gender-stereotypical but that's neither here nor there.

This comment was originally going to be a one-liner wicked burn on thebookyoucrew, you know! The problem was I couldn't think of the one-liner. :P

Your one-liner didn't happen to involve the phrase "thebookyoupoo", did it?

Anyway, we had the "scared" discussion a long time ago, when you were like...oh, god, like 14 or 15? I know we discussed The Ring specifically-- the girl crawling out of the TV isn't scary to me because it's not possible. I actually found the horses committing mass suicide in the American version a lot creepier. I think I said to you then that I'm never scared of things that are logical impossibilities. Aliens in chests don't scare me. Human nature is much scarier to me.

House of Leaves never struck me as a scary book. co-opting tropes from the horror genre doesn't, to me, necessarily mean something is "scary." It did strike me as an interesting exploration of what can happen in text: that a place can be depicted as a character, that a person can be depicted as a setting...once you are writing, you can attribute traits to things that normally would not go with those things. I think that's the important part of the book for me.

I think one of the problems you discuss also entirely has to do with the context in which you received the book. I got the book as a gift from a friend before the hype. I knew about the book because I was a Poe fan, and Haunted is based on the same recordings of the Danielewskis' father that House of Leaves is based on. It hadn't gotten massive pomo-hipster attention at that point, and I didn't have anyone else's response to the book to go on. So there was nothing to be turned off by. As a reader, I've chosen to use the color in the title because it's actually intended to be part of the title, the way the movies Se7en is actually Se7en and not Seven or e e cummings is e e cummings and not E. E. Cummings. There's a difference between a design choice and a title, and the title of the book is House of Leaves, not House of Leaves.

Your color explanation make lots of sense. I admit I'm easily turned off by hype, perhaps to my own detriment -- I resisted reading Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell for the longest time because of all the hype. Then I read it and loved it. I just have some distinctly contrarian urges as a reader.

Ha, I do recall we had this discussion! -- trippy, have we really known each other that long? That's crazy.

Yes! We have known each other since just before your 13th birthday! You needed a permission slip to play in DotG.

I am the same way about hype-- it's a large part of why it took me about three years from the time I first heard of Harry Potter till I actually picked the first book up. And that is largely because I got a rec to read them from a very snooty, pretentious sort of guy who looked down his nose at anything popular.

AH! That's the connection! I've had Haunted since you turned me on to Poe when I was like 13 and then when House of Leaves came out I was super confused. None of the trendy hipster scum people who told me about (how they cool they were for understanding) it knew anything about Poe, and I started thinking that the album came from the book, rather than the two being relatively independent.

I totally agree with you about context. I wasn't really trying to say that I thought the book was pretentious, just people.

I wish I'd enjoyed this book more. I didn't make it all the way through. I was really interested in the House, but I didn't give a crap about the dude and his tattoo parlor. I just wanted to read about the House and for him to quit interrupting. In the end, it got to the point where I didn't care enough to force my way through dude's part of the story and gave up. Maybe I should give it another go now that I'm older...I really did enjoy the creep out effect of the explorations.

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