House of Cop-out

by Arthur B

House of Leaves asks the reader to invest hours of reading time and extensive cross-referencing and analysis to reach an utterly trite punchline.
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In principle, I should love House of Leaves, given that it's a literary horror novel and also an experiment in using the printed word in a startling and unconventional way. Certainly, some of its imagery has proved haunting enough over the years to prompt me to give it another go recently, having forgotten most of what I disliked about it. This second reading has confirmed my impressions of the first: namely, that there's a bunch of interesting experiments going on with it, and author Mark Z. Danielewski actually manages to keep them going for substantially longer than I'd have expected, but at the same time the ending is trite and irritating to the point of ruining the whole endeavour for me, and whilst it is an interesting puzzle it doesn't quite feel worth the effort it takes to unpick it.

Like any good post-modernist, Danielewski has a distinct interest in texts and their interpretation and deconstruction, and House of Leaves presents a sort of multi-layered onion of texts (with a few associated pieces presented in the appendices). The core text the whole story surrounds is The Navidson Record, a film - purportedly a documentary - put together by Pulitzer-winning photojournalist Will Navidson and his partner Karen Green. The film chronicles the bizarre events that ensue when Will, Karen, and their two children move into a new home on Ash Tree Lane in a quiet region of Virginia; Will first becomes aware that something is up with their new home when he realises that the internal measurements exceed the externals by about half an inch, and once he calls in favours from his slacker brother Tom and his engineering professor friend Billy Reston even greater impossibilities arise: the disparity in the size of the interior rooms increases to at least a foot, a passageway spontaneously appears between Will and Karen's room and the kids' room, and a doorway appears in the living room which didn't used to be there.

The living room door should lead to the outside - but the exterior wall on the opposite side shows nothing. In fact, beyond the living room door lies a vast, impossible, constantly shifting labyrinth of pitch-black featureless corridors - a labyrinth Will is determined to explore, and which Karen is absolutely terrified of. Roping in a team led by experienced explorer Holloway Roberts, Navidson and his allies undertake a series of expeditions which eventually lead to a horrendous disaster, but also turns out to be the key to the healing of Will and Karen's relationship.

The thing about The Navidson Record, though, is that we don't have access to it. Instead, the closest to the core of the matter we are allowed to get (and the second layer of the onion) is an extensive commentary on The Navidson Record written by a certain Zampanò, a blind author with a mysterious past and eccentric writing habits. Although Zampanò is clearly an erudite individual and he tries to present this material as academic critique, there's a number of oddities which suggest that he doesn't actually have much of a background in formal film studies. For one thing, he spends entirely too much time writing long descriptions of scenes from The Navidson Record to a level of detail unnecessary for a discussion of a real movie that's available for people to reference in relation to a commentary but which is quite handy for us; on top of that, he goes way overboard on the footnotes, some of them lasting for pages and pages consisting of nothing but lists of names and places or other such ephemera. In addition, Zampanò seems to have written regularly about a minotaur theme in relation to Navidson's labyrinth, but all of the discussions of the concept are crossed out, and at some points the layout of the text goes absolutely crazy - making shapes, changing orientation and margin spacing in a manner reminiscent of the contortions of the labyrinth currently being described, and generally pulling off a range of weird tricks.

Zampanò, however, died before he could compile his notes into a finished manuscript, and the task falls to a certain Johnny Truant, who along with his friend Lude was responsible for the discovery of Zampanò's death and who ends up coming into the possession of a trunk full of Zampanò's notes. Truant not only writes an introduction but also writes a number of footnotes himself, partly to note where he's run into difficulties in reconstructing a section or to point out things which stand out about Zampanò's account and partly to regale the reader with a range of incidents which occur to him during the process of reconstructing the book. As these progress it becomes apparent that Johnny's life is running out of control - not that his self-proclaimed lifestyle of excessive intoxication, frankly unlikely casual sexual encounters, rampant partying and dead-end jobs partaken of in order to fund the above seems to have much stability in the first place, but weird maybe-hallucinatory maybe-supernatural manifestations, increasing paranoia, and an all-consuming obsession with the manuscript don't exactly help matters.

Truant's narrative constitutes a third layer to the narrative; a thin fourth one is provided by occasional interventions and annotations from the Editors, who seem to have taken responsibility for the final presentation of the material - which includes numerous appendices, some of material provided by Zampanò or Johnny, some of which have been provided apparently by the Editors to contradict some of Johnny's assertions, like his insistence that some of Zampanò's sources - not least amongst them being the Navidson Record film itself - do not exist. In addition, it seems hard to ascribe to anyone other than the Editors certain oddities of the printing that run throughout both Zampanò's and Johnny's material - for instance, in my edition the word "house" always appears in blue, whilst the term "Minotaur" and related discussion appears in red. And what about the way the pages of my edition extend beyond the front cover, so this House of Leaves, like the house on Ash Tree Lane, is larger on the inside than the outside?

This array of layers is clearly highly complex, but there's a purposeful complexity to it. Danielewski has made it clear that he's very interested in books as physical objects, and a lot of the crazy formatting and the runaway footnotes and the jumping back and forth between the main text and the appendices and the interrelations between concepts in House of Leaves play on that. Even the title is an allusion to a physical book; "leaves" in the "bits of plants where photosynthesis happens" sense don't actually play any overt role in the book whatsoever. So far as I can tell, cooking up clever-clever ways to engage with the tactile experience of reading a printed book constitutes a major part of Danielewski's creative process - his second novel, Only Revolutions, taking this to such extremes that it's famed more for its obnoxious formatting tricks than it is for any of its actual content, a trap which House of Leaves doesn't fall into because it doesn't allow its fancy formatting to override the necessity to craft memorable scenes and images and incidents.

In particular, Danielewski is skilled at leveraging the two distinctive narrative voices in the book to get the best out of them. Zampanò's tangents aside, his description of the film is so vivid that you can picture it perfectly, as well as bringing out the foibles of the various characters, and whilst in principle the commentary format might suggest he spends all his time telling and little time showing his analysis contains enough ambiguities, oblique sections and outright failures to comment on particular aspects that you can rapidly begin to have your own picture of The Navidson Record which stands apart from Zampanò's own interpretation of it. At the same time, Zampanò's writing is extremely impersonal and he doesn't offer many details about himself, at least not overtly, and at least tries to present himself as an honest voice who doesn't make any attempt to deliberately mislead the reader. Though he seems to be trying to cover up the Minotaur thing, this is mostly a matter of his personal interpretation of the Navidson Record - and since he is our only source for the Record's actual content we have to mostly take him at his word. Conversely, Johnny's narrative is almost entirely about Johnny, and whilst other characters do exist in his narrative, they're framed almost entirely in terms of Johnny's interactions with them and wants and desires; whereas Zampanò is mostly absent from his narration, Johnny's narration is a character study of himself.

In addition, by presenting the book as essentially a nested series of analyses about a text, you could argue that the novel press-gangs the very conversation surrounding it - the reviews, the analyses of its numerous secrets and codes and other easter eggs, the critique and the commentary - into being a fifth layer of the house. The actual book House of Leaves appears in the story at least twice - once in the Navidson Record when Will reads a copy in the labyrinth, and once in Johnny's story, in which he finds a copy of the published book before he finishes editing it and notes how various readers have scrawled in it. Normally, I'd strongly dislike the idea of writing in a book, but I made an exception for my second read-through of House of Leaves, since it positively demands that the reader write in it. (For instance, all but one of the chapters lacks a chapter title, but the chapter titles are given in an appendix for you to write in yourself.) In this way the experience of reading it becomes an obsessive process, like Johnny and Zampanò's writing and editing processes in microcosm.

Of course, the risk of that is that you end up scribbling angry rants in the book once it does something you really object to.

I'd seen warning signs coming up here and there along the way. Zampanò's narrative mentions a little too regularly how striking and original The Navidson Record is and how distant it is from typical Hollywood horror fare, which comes across a little too much like Danielewski declaring how bold and original his literary horror novel is. (After all, a lot of the Johnny/Zampanò/Navidson stuff prompts us to wonder how much of the material in the book is really derived from a film made by Navidson, how much was made up by Zampanò, and how much was made up by Johnny, and whether Zampanò was just an invention of Johnny's or Johnny was an invention of Zampanò, and all of that's going to naturally nudge you to what is, in fact, the correct answer - they're all fake and are inventions of Danielewski, who is solely responsible for anything and everything which is said in the book.) The narration goes so far as to provide a whole swathe of celebrities who've supposedly watched and commented on The Navidson Record (or the edited extracts that preceded its general release), which isn't quite the same thing as making up quotes to put on the back cover blurb of your book because we know the quotes are fictitious, but still feels a lot like saying "were a film actually made with the imagery I have described here, it would be an absolute sensation".

But for the most part I was willing to forgive this, because the story presented here did seem genuinely unique and did offer up a novel and fascinating horror concept and wrapped these all up in textual experiments that had little precedent (though there are some - off the top of the head I can think of the "typographic artwork" in Michael Moorcock's The Black Corridor and the eccentric structure and presentation of Alasdair Gray's Lanark). Unfortunately, having spun out the story for over 500 pages, Danielewski is left out on a limb, sabotaged by his failure to provide an ending as interesting as the preceding material. The scenario presented in the book is so unlike any conventional narrative that when you get a "love conquers all" ending in which Karen rescues Will from the depths of the labyrinth through the sheer power of her love for him it feels like a gargantuan cop-out.

Indeed, there's this troubling thread running through the entirety of Karen's side of the story: she's defined entirely in terms of her relationship with Navidson, and whilst she has her own issues with the labyrinth and her own traumatic past at the same time these exist mostly to be obstacles to smooth and harmonious relations between Will and Karen. Meanwhile, women exist in Johnny's story more or less exclusively for him to flirt with, have casual sex with, and obsess over; the major exception is his mother, who tried to kill him when he was very young and whose absence through most of his life has sorely affected him. Whilst I can accept gladly that Johnny is a weird dude whose lifestyle choices and attitudes aren't necessarily meant to be endorsed by the narration, I find the matter of Will and Karen to be more of a problem, because whilst Johnny being kind of a shithead supports his narrative, Karen's role as first an obstacle to Navidson's determination to explore the labyrinth and subsequently the means of his salvation from it has a nasty, reductive effect on their narrative, taking apparently complex and nuanced interactions and the mysterious behaviour of the house and turning it into a long allegory about how women shouldn't dump their loyal boyfriends because that would be mean and people shouldn't be meanies.

Yes, of course, the earlier phases of the story are still there and present, but by concluding the story in the manner he does Danielewski points rather too directly to a particular solution, and in doing so can't help but endorse it. (Indeed, he's said very prominently in interviews that he considers the book a love story at heart, which further cements this interpretation, and to adopt another reading you pretty much have to ignore the ending of Navidson's story.) He would have been better off either providing a solution just as shocking as the questions established in the text, or ducking back from providing an ending in the first place but simply having Zampanò's analysis of the Record cease ten minutes short of the film's ending. I am left with my vandalised copy of the book and mild regret at investing the time to read it twice.
Themes: Books, Horror
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Comments (go to latest)
http://ronanwills.wordpress.com/ at 00:51 on 2013-12-24
This is one of those books that's been permanently on my to-read list for years, as the idea of what essentially amounts to a single-player ARG appeals to me greatly, but it always seemed like too much of a time investment and the book seems to have gotten a reputation (perhaps unjustified) as something written by someone who thinks he's very clever aimed at other people who think they're very clever so they can tell other people about how clever they are.

Also it has kind of reached the same status as Portal in some circles, in that I've seen people hi-lariously do the red-text blue-text thing (for some reason a lot of people seem to have been very impressed with this) so many times I roll my eyes at it despite having never experienced it in context.

Add in the fact that the book is weirdly expensive to buy and I've just never taken the plunge. I should probably just bite the bullet and give it a shot, bad ending and all, as the concept does seem fascinating.

By the way have you read Night Film? I keep seeing it being brought up as "the next House of Leaves".
Arthur B at 01:09 on 2013-12-24
Add in the fact that the book is weirdly expensive to buy and I've just never taken the plunge. I should probably just bite the bullet and give it a shot, bad ending and all, as the concept does seem fascinating.

I have a hand-annotated, slightly ruined copy you can have...

By the way have you read Night Film? I keep seeing it being brought up as "the next House of Leaves".

Nope, but reading the synopsis reminds me of The Grin of the Dark and preordering the paperback seems cheaper than getting the Kindle version so I guess I'll give it a shot.
Michal at 01:48 on 2013-12-24
I thought S. was supposed to be the next House of Leaves. Though in that case, the typographic trickery just looks tedious rather than interesting.
http://wrongquestions.blogspot.com/ at 08:54 on 2013-12-24
I can't disagree with your points on the handling of women in the book. The use of Karen as a selfless savior pinged me even when I read the book - god, at least ten years ago now - at a time when I wasn't as primed to look for those issues as I am now. But to me House of Leaves was never about any of its characters so much as it was about the house, and the mysteries that accumulate in the surrounding documents. And yes, these mysteries don't resolve, but for the most part I found the manner in which they didn't resolve satisfying, if that makes any sense - they hinted at a coherent larger mythology without ever delivering it (which would of course have been impossible). Towards the end of the book, that satisfaction grows a bit wobbly - in particular, the appendix comprised of poems by Johnny's mother (which Danielewski has expanded and published as its own volume) fell completely flat for me - but that still left the story of the house, the minotaur, and Zampano, which I found compelling.

(So much so, in fact, that I even went through of phase of coloring all uses of "house" blue when discussing the book, which is rather embarrassing when I look back on it.)

I wonder how much of the book's appeal stems from the fact that both the found footage horror craze and metafictional, footnote-laden, post-modernist literature craze were at their infancy when it was published. Both are so over-exposed now that I imagine the book seems a lot less revolutionary and daring than it did when I first read it (and of course, I was a less experienced reader then as well). As Michal notes, we've reached the phase where the House of Leaves style is appearing in purely commercial enterprises like S., which surely indicates that it's no longer in any way experimental.
Arthur B at 09:27 on 2013-12-24
But to me House of Leaves was never about any of its characters so much as it was about the house, and the mysteries that accumulate in the surrounding documents. And yes, these mysteries don't resolve, but for the most part I found the manner in which they didn't resolve satisfying, if that makes any sense - they hinted at a coherent larger mythology without ever delivering it (which would of course have been impossible).

I think it would specifically have been possible because despite its protean depths, the mystery of the house actually feels very shallow. There's this geometry-defying maze, right... and that's more or less it. The one time the house gets proactive is so goofy and cartoonish that it completely wrecked the mood for me.

I wonder how much of the book's appeal stems from the fact that both the found footage horror craze and metafictional, footnote-laden, post-modernist literature craze were at their infancy when it was published.

Entirely possible, it's certainly doesn't feel like it's dated at all well.

As Michal notes, we've reached the phase where the House of Leaves style is appearing in purely commercial enterprises like S., which surely indicates that it's no longer in any way experimental.

How is S. a purely commercial exercise?
http://wrongquestions.blogspot.com/ at 10:51 on 2013-12-24
There's this geometry-defying maze, right... and that's more or less it

I seem to recall that Danielewski was trying to do something with the image of Yggdrasil, and the notion that the house stood at its center, but it's been long enough since I read it that I'm not sure.

How is S. a purely commercial exercise?

Maybe purely commercial is taking it too far, but it is certainly a commercial exercise. The very fact that it's published by [famous person] & [much less famous person] already says a lot, and the way that it uses Abrams's name specifically to cash in on associations with Lost and Alias also rubs me the wrong way.
Arthur B at 11:55 on 2013-12-24
I seem to recall that Danielewski was trying to do something with the image of Yggdrasil, and the notion that the house stood at its center, but it's been long enough since I read it that I'm not sure.

Yeah, "Ash Tree Lane" is a fairly major pointer to this, and there's a short poem called Yggdrasil at the end of the book, but what's the point of having the world-ash if you don't actually hang any worlds from it?

I mean, I guess you could at a stretch see the fact that Johnny Truant can't find any evidence that The Navidson Record and certain other documents exist but the Editors can possibly suggests an interaction between parallel universes, but you have to stretch for that and Yggdrasil isn't really about linking very similar universes with mild differences but entirely different realms of the cosmos.

Maybe purely commercial is taking it too far, but it is certainly a commercial exercise.

As is House of Leaves, given that it is sold in shops and has a barcode and everything.

The very fact that it's published by [famous person] & [much less famous person] already says a lot, and the way that it uses Abrams's name specifically to cash in on associations with Lost and Alias also rubs me the wrong way.

What, Abrams isn't allowed to do an art-for-art's-sake project on the side once in a while? Publishers ought to respectfully decline to leverage a creator's existing work in order to promote their work? This seems a terribly puritan approach to assessing the merits of a work.
http://wrongquestions.blogspot.com/ at 12:44 on 2013-12-24
Abrams isn't allowed to do an art-for-art's-sake project on the side once in a while?

I suppose he's allowed, but judging by his career so far, he doesn't seem capable of it.

I mean, I don't doubt that Abrams believes in S., in much the same way he presumably believed in Star Trek Into Darkness, but that doesn't require me to share that belief.
Zampano--blind, Spanish name, likes labyrinths and metafiction--seems like a reference to Borges.
Arthur B at 16:34 on 2013-12-24
House of Leaves references everything, though equally a lot of those references don't amount to much beyond "hey, this is reminiscent of a Clever Thing, therefore this is also Clever". It's like the Family Guy of literary fiction in that respect.
James D at 00:55 on 2013-12-25
Ugh, House of Leaves stands as one of the very very few books I've started and deliberately decided not to finish - The Infinite Jest being another. The thing is, I've read a fair amount of Borges, and when he wrote metafiction, he had the wisdom to keep it very short. Danielewski stretches metafiction to novel-length, when really the core story of the House probably wouldn't be more than a long short story. When I tried to read it, I honestly didn't care much about Zampano's ramblings or Johnny Truant's shitty life; I just wanted to know what was going to happen with the House, which might make me too lowbrow for Danielewski, but that's how I felt.

But for the most part I was willing to forgive this, because the story presented here did seem genuinely unique and did offer up a novel and fascinating horror concept and wrapped these all up in textual experiments that had little precedent (though there are some - off the top of the head I can think of the "typographic artwork" in Michael Moorcock's The Black Corridor and the eccentric structure and presentation of Alasdair Gray's Lanark).

Another good, well-known example would be the final section of Samuel R Delany's Dhalgren, in which it's formatted to resemble the protagonist's notebook, with sideways writing representing bits scribbled in the margins, little boxes of text detailing events that aren't connected to the main narrative, and similar things one might find in a well-used notebook.

Come to think of it, Dhalgren might belong in that same category of long, dense, cryptic post-modern speculative fiction as The Infinite Jest and House of Leaves, but I found it much much more fascinating than either. I didn't feel like Delany was wasting my time with pointless aren't-I-clever literary masturbation while reading it.
Arthur B at 01:02 on 2013-12-25
Dhalgren is another book in the "I didn't think I liked it immediately after the first reading but over time it's sort of haunted me and I want to give it another reading" category for me. I do remember it feeling much less up itself than House of Leaves did; to be fair, arguably Danielewski is parodying literary/academic masturbation as much as he's partaking it, but if it's impossible to tell the difference between your parody of being a tosser and you being a tosser then it's very possible that you're just being a tosser.
James D at 23:02 on 2013-12-25
Dhalgren is definitely not an easy read, and when I read it I took a break somewhere in the middle and read a much shorter, easier book - Nine Princes in Amber, IIRC. However, Dhalgren has a ton going for it that kept me interested, not the least of which is its extremely high levels of PoC/queer inclusion. The protagonist alone is Native American/black and bisexual (and seems to have sex with other men more often than women, too).

I could write pages about why I liked it, but instead I'll just say that you should definitely give it another shot.
http://alula_auburn.livejournal.com/ at 17:49 on 2013-12-27
I have a copy of this kicking around, but have never been able to get in the proper headspace/motivation to read it (possibly complicated by having trouble getting a read on how disturbing I would actually find it and fitting that in so I don't read it at the same time I'm having an anxiety thing.) If you do read Night Film, I'll be really curious if you write about it here. I read it because I did genuinely love her debut novel (even if I can see exactly why parts of it rub some people the wrong way).

But this:
I'd seen warning signs coming up here and there along the way. Zampanò's narrative mentions a little too regularly how striking and original The Navidson Record is and how distant it is from typical Hollywood horror fare, which comes across a little too much like Danielewski declaring how bold and original his literary horror novel is.

Is a big red flag issue in Night Film. The book basically hinges on this film director whose horror films are supposed to be SO DEEP and DISTURBING that they can't get mainstream distribution,
that they are shown only in secret viewings in Paris Metro tunnels and the like, that there's a charity devoted solely to buying up copies and disturbing them, and a sekrit internet devoted to him.


(I tried the spoiler tags manually and with the button, but it didn't work in the preview--most of this is revealed in the first 20 pages or so). And then, eventually she has to describe a few of the plots and they sound. . .okay? Decent pyschological horror premises that could be done pretty slickly, but that's about it. I would almost like to consider it as a meta-comment about the nature of suspension of disbelief, since within the world of the book I was much more willing to believe in, idk, literal deals with the devil than that these movies would be either so powerful or so terrifying that they cause literal madness and bans and all. But I'm pretty sure we are urged to believe in the genius of the filmmaker at face value. (In her debut book, the main character idolizes her father as a genius, but it's fairly easy for a reader to see through or around that, which makes me think if that was what Pessl wanted to do, she'd have done it.)
Arthur B at 18:33 on 2013-12-27
And then, eventually she has to describe a few of the plots and they sound. . .okay? Decent pyschological horror premises that could be done pretty slickly, but that's about it.

To be fair, an awful lot of filmmaking lies more in the execution than the premise, and this is extra true for horror and extra double true for psychological horror.

I mean, if you read the premises of Mulholland Drive or Lost Highway they sound stupid, but Lynch spins gold with them anyway. I can suspend my disbelief to imagine that a filmmaker takes a decent-ish premise and makes something incomparably deeper from it in general; it falls over in House of Leaves because, via Zampano, MZD basically gives us a scene by scene blow-by-blow account of the film.
Melanie at 18:49 on 2013-12-27
I would almost like to consider it as a meta-comment about the nature of suspension of disbelief, since within the world of the book I was much more willing to believe in, idk, literal deals with the devil than that these movies would be either so powerful or so terrifying that they cause literal madness and bans and all.


Aaaa, I know, right? I haven't read the book in question, but in the absence of any actual magic/supernatural stuff, that sounds completely ridiculous.

I think suspension of disbelief is largely a matter of the author sort of tacitly acknowledging that such-and-such isn't how things really work, but it's how they work in the world in which the story is set. And then the reader can sort of adopt the new rules as laid down for a bit, for the purposes of understanding and thinking about the story. But a big part of it is establishing what the story's world is like, and pretty early on (I don't mean that it has to start out with a bunch of worldbuilding-type exposition or anything, just in general terms, i.e. "magic exists here" or "this is an alien society" or "faster-than-light spaceships exist". So just genre is a major tool for this). When suspension of disbelief is broken, I think it's a matter of the agreement being broken: of the author trying to change the rules midstream, or breaking the rules they've set forth. With the former, there are things like having a story/series start out apparently set in the real world, but then partway through, some kind of supernatural element is introduced*. With the latter, there are things like the magic system suddenly working differently than it had been shown to work up to that point, especially with no decent explanation. Or, on a more mundane level, characters doing out-of-character things (because on some level, "this is what this character is like" is part of the rules set forth for the story) or just inexplicably behaving in ways we don't think people would plausibly behave (because unless it's explicitly set out that the people in the story aren't human, or that human nature is actually different here for some reason, "and people are basically the same and basically act the same as people actually do" is assumed as part of the premise. So it's still a matter of defining whether, and how, the story's world differs from the real world, and then sticking to that).


*This is especially bad if it's at the end and the answer to some mystery. It combines "suspension of disbelief goes snap" with "author not playing fair". I remember a book that was realism most of the way through, and then there were some mysterious murders, and it turned out it was a literal goddamn golem, made of clay and animated by magic, doing the murders. I recall the Dexter books also did the "suddenly, supernatural element!" thing... a few books in.
James D at 21:14 on 2013-12-27
I can suspend my disbelief to imagine that a filmmaker takes a decent-ish premise and makes something incomparably deeper from it in general; it falls over in House of Leaves because, via Zampano, MZD basically gives us a scene by scene blow-by-blow account of the film.

I think part of the problem in House of Leaves is also that Danielewski spends so much time directly telling us, through his various narrators, that the Navidson Record is, like, SUPER DUPER LIFE-SHATTERINGLY SCARY, rather than just showing us the results and letting us draw our own conclusions. Of course with that much hype there's no way any real horror story could ever live up to it, and when Danielewski does get around to telling the actual core haunted house story, surprise surprise, it doesn't live up to his hundreds of pages of hype. At all.

Similar yet superior examples of in-universe insanity-inducing fiction are in The Grin of the Dark, which basically just shows us the results of Tubby's films and lets us draw our own conclusions, and The King in Yellow, where the titular play is usually just a background element to the goings-on in each of the linked short stories. In both the fact that it drives people insane is only a rumor that the characters themselves don't even really believe. In the case of Tubby, the few actual blow-by-blow descriptions of his films that we get are brief and do actually seem pretty terrifying, once you know their context. In The King in Yellow, the actual content of the play is almost totally obscured, and we only get a few brief quotations of the text itself, which are intriguing while not actually giving away much about the play.

In both cases, the key seems to be to make the story more about demonstrating the effects the "forbidden works" have on their audience rather than having someone drone on about those effects, and to keep the actual content shrouded in mystery, dropping only enough hints to keep the reader interested. It's kind of a tightrope act, and as far as I'm concerned Chambers and Campbell kept their balance far better than Danielewski.
Melanie at 00:38 on 2013-12-28
In both the fact that it drives people insane is only a rumor that the characters themselves don't even really believe.


IIRC in The King in Yellow it seemed like there was something actually supernatural going on with the play, too. Not that it's ever explained, but I never got the impression that the play was supposed to be just something that someone thought up and wrote down and they were just such an amazing writer that it had that effect on people.
http://alula-auburn.livejournal.com/ at 02:00 on 2013-12-28
I mean, if you read the premises of Mulholland Drive or Lost Highway they sound stupid, but Lynch spins gold with them anyway. I can suspend my disbelief to imagine that a filmmaker takes a decent-ish premise and makes something incomparably deeper from it in general; it falls over in House of Leaves because, via Zampano, MZD basically gives us a scene by scene blow-by-blow account of the film.

Certainly, and I was being a little bit snarky/facetious in my description. But actually, I think she'd have done better to give less description than she (eventually) does, which is a bigger problem--like she feeds lines to a film critic about a scenario (wife suspects husband of murder) as if the concept itself is innovative, instead of being bog-standard Hitchcockian/Highsmith fare. Or long, loving descriptions of how AMAZING the shots of a Significant Briefcase.

But honestly, even if she'd handled that more deftly, I still think she'd painted herself into a corner by making her Lynch times Kubrick times Hitchcock awesome filmmaker, crossed with JD Salinger and possibly Charles Manson, hinging on the idea that these films are SO OUTRE that they can only be secretly exchanged on the black market. . .the summaries, which mostly come quite late in the book, have an awful lot of narrative work to do. The
Slate review actually said what I meant better, which is that the suspension of disbelief issue is more that there's an imaginable slate of horror movies to cause the banning/mass panic/cult like obsession the plot needs to function.
James D at 02:27 on 2013-12-28
IIRC in The King in Yellow it seemed like there was something actually supernatural going on with the play, too. Not that it's ever explained, but I never got the impression that the play was supposed to be just something that someone thought up and wrote down and they were just such an amazing writer that it had that effect on people.

Honestly it's hard to say for sure. The origin of the play isn't even suggested in the Chambers stories, as far as I remember. However, it does seem that it's more than fiction, as the fantastical places it describes seem to exist in some form -another dimension, beyond the veil, whatever- so the play does have some sort of connection to the supernatural, rather than just being the supernatural invention of its author.
Sister Magpie at 04:11 on 2013-12-28
Honestly it's hard to say for sure. The origin of the play isn't even suggested in the Chambers stories, as far as I remember. However, it does seem that it's more than fiction, as the fantastical places it describes seem to exist in some form -another dimension, beyond the veil, whatever- so the play does have some sort of connection to the supernatural, rather than just being the supernatural invention of its author.



Right, and I can see how something more like that would have worked for the Navidson Record. That movie, iirc, isn't supposed to be like The King in Yellow in that it's not supposed to have supernatural properties itself, but be more like found footage of actual events that would be studied and would fascinate people. There'd be arguments about whether it was true, and it would be just a scary movie. But when it's described so clearly you just feel like you're watching an actual found footage movie like any other, and not one that stands out very much, especially because you're watching it once removed, having it described to you.

The whole trope of a work of art that's "so powerful" it leads to madness is one I really like, but you really do have to hit the right balance. You have to have enough little details to be disturbing and make it believable, but not so much that you get it and it's not driving you crazy. The King in Yellow seems to have a supernatural element, iirc, but then, if we're only hearing the stories of people who were driven mad by it it could just be a case of mass hysteria.

I'd say, btw, that Curse of the Blair Witch/Blair Witch Project does this well too--referring here to the legend itself rather than the story of the three film students. It's a believable legend because it fits together enough to believably make people make connections in their heads, but leaves a lot to chaos.
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