I’ve been re-reading House of Leaves for the first time in a decade. It remains a book that just gobsmacks me with its brilliance, daring, and sheer goodness.
It’s also the scariest book I’ve ever read.
I’m a veteran horror reader, and perhaps for that very reason, being that I am quite jaded, House of Leaves is the only book that has actually elevated my pulse, kept me up wide-eyed at night looking at the corners of the dark walls and convincing myself that they’re not really moving.
And last night, after reading through Exploration #4, I went downstairs to get a drink and turned on every light on the way to the kitchen, because it was too damn scary not to. And I know how this book ends!
I know a lot of people slide off of it because of the cryptographic element and the textual jiggerypokery (which is intense, even for me) but honestly, there’s such a good story at the core of it, such a strange, painful, personal, dare I say unheimlich story, that the pomo of it all can be taken or not taken, treated as DVD extras or as a vital part of the book, and both readings are correct. And I think the very unheimlichness, taking the familiar — a house — and turning that familiarity into awfulness and totally unexplainable and unexplained (one of the few books or films where the never-explaining tactic doesn’t piss me off, possibly a greater feat than scaring me) freaks the reader where they live, so to speak. Also, it takes the familiar haunted house narrative and literally explodes it, landing text all over the place. It’s just so fucking brilliant. And though it lands outside the last decade by a year, I’d call it the most “important” adult book of the new century. But everyone’s been influenced by it. And many of the tricks, such as this one: house, basically can’t ever be used again without accusations of derivativeness. (And it’s SUCH a good trick.) You have to take your hat off. All the way off. And do a slow clap.
On the re-read, it’s been interesting to meditate on how the found-footage horror film has become so much of a staple that it’s kind of played-out and trite now, whereas I don’t think even Blair Witch had come out when this book was written, and the idea of something like The Navidson Record was so weird and interesting and exciting — I wonder how many found footage filmmakers have read HoL. Because essentially, Paranormal Activity tells a smaller, less interesting version of the A plot (Zampano’s manuscript and The cultural phenomenon of The Navidson Record — though maybe that’s the B plot, it depends on how you read the novel) of the novel, though without the total unseating of reality, and serious doubt as to what is and is not fiction.
While I think the novel as a whole is unfilmmable, The Navidson Record would be an amazing film, and I wish it existed. Funny thing, that. For a novel completely and utterly about film and the image, it relies on text and is in love with text to the extent that filming it becomes somewhat pointless. Again, slow clap, because that shit is brilliant. (And as someone writing a novel about movies right now, I’m paying close attention.)
But the idea of the viral found footage horror film is just part of the culture now. All this would be up on You Tube these days. Zampano’s manuscript would be a website or a blog. And I know people have done this kind of stuff online, creating fake blogs to tell a horror story. But House of Leaves would be a bitch to code and it has a quality so far and above most “experimental” fiction I can’t help but be in awe. In fact, the lack of digital penetration into the narrative is remarkable — I know it was written in the mid-nineties, but by 2000 the internet was in full swing, and yet there is almost no mention of it as the Navidsons and Johnny Truant try to solve their problems and research their origins. (To be honest, I still have much less patience for the Truant sections than I think I’m meant to. It plays to a lot of tropes that have no resonance for me, but of course it’s totally necessary to ground the novel in an observer, to give it emotional, direct, un-academic voice and depth. Still, he’s just kind of a douche. His mom, on the other hand…)
The point is I love this book so hard. And we live in a world moved somewhat past it now, a world it had a part in creating, which makes it all the more fascinating and recursive. The novel creates an almost unique emotion, of genuine fear and doubt and longing for something to be real at the same time as being grateful it is not, of dread and wonder. And maybe, whatever that feeling is called, it’s what the horror genre is always trying to bring us, from dark, cold places just out of reach.
And before you ask, yes, I have heard and loved the Poe album. Instead, for those of you who are fans, what’s your favorite hidden bit, code, easter egg?
I wonder if Tor.com would let me do a re-read in the style of? That would be awesome fun.