Once Around The Bookshelf: “The Function of Dream Sleep”

A new feature: I’m going to review a story from every collection, anthology, and chapbook on my bookshelf. I have a lot of them, so this might take awhile. First up: Harlan Ellison.

 

The book: Angry Candy

 

The story: “The Function of Dream Sleep”

 

Review: When I was nineteen years old, I picked up my first Ellison collection. He’d come to my attention after Stephen King’s enthusiastic review of his work in Danse Macabre, which was the budding horror-writer’s bible back in the 80’s. I remembered reading a minor story by Ellison (“Do-It-Yourself”) years prior, and thought he would be worth an extended look.

 

The first paragraph hooked me: “On the night after the day she had stained the louvered window shutters of her new apartment on East 52nd Street, Beth saw a woman slowly and hideously knifed to death in the courtyard of her building. She was one of twenty-six witnesses to the ghoulish scene, and like them, she did nothing to stop it.” The juxtaposition of the mundane and the shocking, the ripped-from-the-headlines approach—it worked like gangbusters, and “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” became the first of many Ellison stories seared into my soul, leading me to immediately seek out more. And his stories led me to his film reviews, his collections of essays, his groundbreaking books about television (The Glass Teat and its sequel). I spent a handful of years devouring everything Ellison wrote. My college essays started to sound like Ellison. The short stories I attempted had an Ellisonian sheen. Hell, even my politics skewed left after reading Ellison’s exhortations for liberal causes. Harlan Ellison was, in short, my very favorite writer.

 

That was a long time ago. I haven’t read an Ellison story in years. It happens: you find new heroes, new mentors.  Harlan didn’t help matters, either, spending the twilight years of his life better known for being boorish and inappropriate than for writing anything new. And now he’s dead, and the words cease flowing altogether.

 

Which brings us to the story at hand. I first read “The Function of Dream Sleep” in the December 1988 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. I remember it knocked me out, immediately entering my upper pantheon of Ellison stories, a definitive statement on grief (along with the introduction to the collection it was housed in, Angry Candy), rivaling Ellison’s classic, “The Deathbird.” How would it hold up thirty years later, a week after the death of its creator?

 

 Well, I’m not sure it’s the classic I once thought it was. But it is a good story, a heartfelt attempt by Ellison to make sense of all the friends and loved ones he had lost in the space of two years, a way to assuage his pain. The main character, like Ellison, is someone who has been driven half-mad from the loss of too many people he cares about, from attending too many funerals. And now he glimpses an open mouth in his side when he wakes up from REM sleep, a mouth full of small, sharp teeth. The mouth and the man’s grief are connected, of course, and he has to deal with the latter to get rid of the former.

 

Like most of Ellison’s work, the story is a little over-the-top. Harlan’s work is definitely informed by the pulp tradition he sprang from, and he likes dramatic confrontations and monologues a bit more than he should (confession: so do I). The dialogue strikes the occasional false note, and the story ends too quickly. But “Dream Sleep” still has power, and strikes a chord with me. While I’ve been fortunate to avoid major losses in my personal circle of friends and family, I’ve lost a lot of heroes lately: Ed Gorman, Melanie Tem, Bowie, Prince, Tom Petty. And now Ellison—the guy who taught me it wasn’t my opinion that mattered, but my informed opinion, the guy who demanded I care about something, the guy who expected quality and refused to fail—he’s gone, too. Maybe he wasn’t the giant I thought he was when I was nineteen, but he helped shape the writer I am, the citizen I am, maybe even the person I am. Yeah, he was probably an ass, and I don’t think I would have ever wanted to meet him. But on a good day, he could write like a dream, and he cared. That’s enough for me.

Next Up: Looming Low, edited by Justin Steele and Sam Cowan

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Horror Structure: A Baker’s Dozen

I read a lot of short stories. I love the form, and find it especially conducive to my genre of choice: horror. Horror novels are great, but horror stories can provide that ice pick-stab of terror that often becomes diluted (or worse, wearying) over 300+ pages. And, of course, I’m trying to write this stuff, so short fiction is my classroom, my textbook.

Anyway, after devouring anthology after anthology, I’m starting to notice a few things.

Like many other writers have commented on in the past, there are only so many plots out there in the ether. That’s also true of the horror story. I started to wonder: how many basic horror plots are there? If you stripped away all the embellishment, the special effects, the bells and whistles, how many stories did you have?

I came up with thirteen. I’m sure there are a few more, or maybe a few could be combined, but I like my list. Here it is:

Types of horror stories

  1. The horror is outside you. It is chasing you. It builds. You can’t (or won’t) stop it.
  2. The horror is outside you. You try to stop it, but you make it worse.
  3. The horror is outside you. You stop it, but it costs you.
  4. You are chasing the horror. You don’t know it. It consumes you.
  5. You are chasing the horror. You know it. It consumes you, or makes you complicit.
  6. You are living the horror. You try to escape, but you can’t. Or maybe you do. Or maybe you only think you escaped.
  7. You are the horror, or you create the horror. This includes revenge tales, if we put “horror” in air quotes.
  8. The horror was inside you, but now it’s outside you. Can you contain it?
  9. The whole world is horrible. How do you manage/survive? This encompasses all post-apocalyptic tales and dystopias.
  10. Everything’s fine. Then the horror comes out of nowhere. It usually mows you down. Sometimes it takes a while, either for you to figure it out or to be destroyed.
  11. Something bad/eerie/unexplained happened to me some time ago. Let me tell you about it.
  12. The waking nightmare: nothing is making sense. The world has irrevocably changed. How do I navigate this without drowning? (could be seen as a subset of #6)
  13. It’s all a big misunderstanding. I’m really fine…or am I?

I’ve taken to fitting every story I read into my list. So far, I’ve been pretty successful. It might be a reductionist exercise, but like outlining and keeping lists of story ideas, it makes writing manageable for me, and takes away a little of the terror of the blank page. If anyone has a category I missed, drop me a line.

Lagniappe: One of my favorite anthologies I’ve read in the last couple of years is Ellen Datlow’s Nightmares. Datlow’s premise is a good one: pick a favorite story from each year of the last decade, one story per writer only. Although I had read most of the writers she included before, many of the stories she chose were new to me, and a few (such as Livia Llewellyn’s “Omphalos”) were truly terrifying. Datlow is the premier anthologist of our generation, the Stephen King of the horror anthology, and Nightmares inspired my own list of the best horror of the last decade or so, following the same rules:

2003: Dan Chaon—The Bees
2004: Kelly Link—Stone Animals
2005: Joe Hill—Voluntary Committal
2006: Gene Wolfe—Sob In The Silence
2007: Lisa Tuttle—Closet Dreams
2008: John Langan—Lacoon, or, The Singularity
2009: Gerard Houarner—The Other Box
2010: M Rickert—Was She Wicked? Was She Good?
2011: Laird Barron—The Siphon
2011: Elizabeth Hand—Near Zennor
2012: Nathan Ballingrud—Wild Acre
2013:Paul Tremblay—Swim Wants To Know If It’s As Bad As Swim Thinks
2013: William Browning Spencer—The Indelible Dark
2014:Dale Bailey—The End of the End of Everything
2015:Brian Evenson—Seaside Town

It’s too early to pick a favorite for the last couple years, as I have too much to catch up on. Maybe in a few months.

 

Donald Trump, Time Suck

So: 2017. It’s been a great year for me, personally: I graduated with my MFA, watched my daughter graduate from high school, spent time with the family in Colorado and northern Minnesota. I went to Los Angeles with my wife and watched sunsets over the ocean and hung out with friends. I’m eagerly awaiting Christmas, which I plan to celebrate surrounded by people I love. A great year, 2017. As long as we don’t talk about creative accomplishments.

 

I did write a few things this year—two novelettes and a longish short story, to be exact. And they’re not terrible, even though I’m not totally satisfied with any of them. But I know I should’ve written more, should’ve written with more determination. I frittered and sluffed off, letting my work-in-progress gather more dust than an unwanted medical bill. My writer’s group helped, since I got tired of going to each biweekly session and telling my friends I hadn’t accomplished anything (thanks, everybody!). Still, I underachieved. I let myself down. In sum, I was a slacker.

 

And I blame the President of the United States.

 

Now, before you ask if my medication has been recently adjusted, let me explain. In an effort to increase my productivity, I recently examined how I was spending my free time, looking for wasted hours I could better spend writing and reading. I rarely play video games, even the smartphone ones, so that wasn’t an issue. A good deal of the TV I watch is only with one eye, while I’m doing something else. I didn’t even see half the movies I thought looked interesting this year (still need to see Get Out, and It Comes at Night, and Mother), so that’s not the problem. No—the single most time-consuming, productivity-destroying activity I engage in daily is scouring the internet for news that our country is not going to be destroyed by Donald J. Trump and his minions.

 

I admit that Obama spoiled me. I didn’t feel the need to obsessively refresh the Politico website, looking for encouraging poll numbers or proof that some politician out there had a backbone (or even better, a soul). Even though I didn’t agree with everything he did, I knew Obama and his administration had America’s back, and I could focus on writing and reading and being creative without worry.

 

Now? Hoo-boy. Every day feels like a tango with Armageddon, an Orwell novel writ large. I worry that if I don’t keep my eyes open, I’ll be aiding and abetting the dissolution of American democracy. And I doubt that I’m the only one. I have read stories before about creative types having difficulty focusing on their art in times of personal crisis. Well, how about national crisis?

 

Anyway, now that I’ve used the president as an excuse why I didn’t do my homework (ahem), I’ve decided to amend my internet habits in the upcoming year. I am still going to be vigilant, but not so obsessive. I’m going to read more, and read more for pleasure. And I’m going to put my work first. The awful stories about how everything is going to hell will still be there when I’m done.

 

Although I didn’t read as much as I wanted this year, I did read a lot of short stories. Most of what I read wasn’t published in 2017, but a few things were. Below are my picks for the best of 2017:

 

  • Rest Stop (Gamut online)—Letitia Trent

I wish I could distill this story into a drug and inject it. Trent only needs a handful of pages to suck you in, develop character, and deliver a memorable climax. This was only one of many excellent stories published by Gamut this year, which is ceasing publication at the end of this month. I will really miss it.

 

  • Night Fever (Asimov’s) -Will Ludwigsen

Most every issue of Asimov’s I have purchased in the last year was because it had a Will Ludwigsen story in it. He is never less than enjoyable, and this alternate history of Charles Manson in the disco era feels like it actually happened.

 

  • The Green Eye (Black Static Jan/Feb ‘17)—Scott Nicolay

I love metafiction ( I wrote a forty page essay on it, if you’re interested). Nicolay’s tale definitely qualifies, and his discussion of childhoods remembered and fictionalized says a lot about how we cannibalize our experiences as artists.

 

  • The Spook School (Nightmare) —Nick Mamatas

Imagine you are having a enjoyable dinner with friends—a few drinks, lively conversation, some humor. Then your friend comes around the table and punches you in the face. That’s as good of an emotional synopsis of Mamatas’ story as I can come up with. It’s online, by the way. Go read it.

 

  • Marley and Marley (F&SF) —J.R. Dawson

          Them Boys (Strange Horizons) -Nora Anthony (tie)

Full disclosure: Both Dawson and Anthony are fellow Stonecoast grads, and we were all in a Magical Realism workshop together (some great stories came out of that workshop, too). Both Dawson and Anthony take well-worn tropes (time travel and mermen, respectively) and inject new life into them, focusing keenly on the emotional states of their protagonists. I loved both stories, and am excited to see more work from both of these up-and-coming authors in the future.

 

Langiappe: I listened to a lot of music this year, maybe even more than usual. The following ten albums are my favorites of the year, offered without comment (they’re all great):

 

Daymoon—Strange Ranger

Forget—Xiu Xiu

Hot Thoughts—Spoon

Everybody Works—Jay Som

A Crow Looked At Me—Mount Eerie

Pure Comedy—Father John Misty

DAMN—Kendrick Lamar

Under Duress—Converge

American Dream—LCD Soundsystem

The Hanged Man—Ted Leo

 

I’ll be back in January to talk about Ellen Datlow’s great anthology Nightmares, and my favorite horror stories of the last decade. I hope everyone has a Merry Christmas/Happy Holiday!

Thoughts on The Doll Collection, edited by Ellen Datlow

I love a Datlow-edited anthology. She has an incredible eye for talent, and always does a nice job of mixing solid stories by veteran writers with exciting pieces by up-and-comers. Her concept of horror is a broad one, including both dark crime fiction and horror-tinged fantasy. And she comes up with intriguing themes for her anthologies, satisfying both the dictates of the marketplace (Fearful Symmetries, the only non-themed anthology Datlow has edited recently, needed a Kickstarter campaign to bring to fruition) and the savvy horror reader.

The Doll Collection is one of Datlow’s relatively recent anthologies, and it does not disappoint. What’s particularly interesting with this anthology is how much mileage the contributors get out of what appears, at first glance, to be a limited concept: horror stories involving dolls. Datlow narrows the concept further by excluding any “evil doll” tales, which are what I immediately think of when one mentions “doll” and “horror” in the same breath. Instead, the stories in this collection focus on creepy doll collectors and odd doll makers, dolls as talismans and protectors, dolls in the role of proxy or surrogate. There are all kinds of stories included here. More instructive for this writer, there are also all types of stories–examples of familiar themes or approaches that I have seen used by writers again and again. An examination of a few of the story types I encountered in The Doll Collection follow:

The “easy skeleton” story–”Skin and Bone” by Tim Lebbon

Some stories have relatively uncomplicated plots. I refer to them as “easy skeleton” stories, because you can clearly see the “bones” of the plot. That doesn’t mean the story is a bad one–many simple stories can be quite effective. Lebbon’s tale of an Antarctic explorer and the odd doll he finds in the snow is both easy to graph (main character finds life-size doll, talks to friend in tent, checks on doll again, etc) and incredibly creepy. It’s heartening when you read an effective story that you feel wouldn’t have been impossible to write, and Lebbon’s story is a good example.

The EC comics homage–”Gaze” by Gemma Files

I’ve enjoyed just about every story of Files I have read, and “Gaze” is no exception. Files’ tale of supernatural revenge from beyond the grave is definitely more refined than the typical EC tale, but has a similar flavor. Files employs a historical curiosity (eye miniatures) as a significant plot device and uses a slightly patchwork narrative, but the main thrust of the story is still “woman unjustly accused and hanged, returns from the dead.” EC-type stories aren’t usually my favorites, but Files makes every type of story her own, and adds enough intriguing story furniture to make her story satisfy.

The dark fantasy story–”There Is No Place for Sorrow in the Kingdom of the Cold” by Seanan McGuire

Datlow often has stories in her anthologies that skew towards the fantasy end of the horror spectrum. McGuire’s story is one of those. She manages to meld the myth of Pandora and the story of Pinnochio (and his creator, Carlos Collodi) into a rich backdrop for her contemporary tale. I’ve read many stories recently that successfully use myth or fairy tale elements to add another level to their narrative; this is something I would like to do more frequently (and maybe become more well-versed in mythology in the process).

The apocalyptic story–”After and Back Before” by Miranda Siemienowicz

Apocalyptic horror (or science fiction, for that matter) has always been one of my favorite subgenres. Unfortunately, the post-apocalypse tale has become a bit overused lately. I blame zombies, since zombie tales are both uber-popular and essentially a variation of apocalypse. Siemienowicz’s story is not about zombies, even if it does have people resorting to cannibalism. Instead, it’s the familiar “societal collapse following a nuclear war” story that’s been a staple of science fiction magazines for seventy years. I liked it fine, as Siemienowicz’s style lifts her tale beyond the well-traveled plot machinations.

 The metafictional story–”Word Doll” by John Ford

John Ford has written a whole series of stories where he is a character in the story. Several of those are included in his collection Crackpot Palace, which I read last year. “Word Doll” is another of these metafictional pieces.

I admit I am a sucker for novelty and experimentation, so I really enjoy metafiction. What’s great with these stories of Ford’s is the metafictional elements are only one layer; Ford grafts a compelling (and in this case, creepy) story to his wanderings around his neighborhood and struggles to write. Ford’s story of a weird anthropological ritual that backfires on a farming community doesn’t need Ford’s self-referential musings to be successful, but they add an element of immediacy and authenticity to the story, making it one of my favorites in the anthology.    

The WTF story–”Visit Lovely Cornwall on the Western Railway Line” by Genevieve Valentine

Another story I greatly enjoyed was Valentine’s. It was an excellent example of what I call a “WTF” story, where the story is told or concludes somewhat enigmatically, leaving the reader to deduce some of the story’s connections. The key words here are “some” and “somewhat,” as too much ambiguity or subtlety can make a story a confusing mess. Valentine’s story was called “baffling” by one reviewer (who actually really liked it) and it is, but in a good way. Valentine provides enough details to give readers a guide for coloring in the empty spaces in her story, which revolves around a number of characters’ individual encounters with a strange girl and her doll on a train. It reminded me a bit of Dennis Etchison’s work, one of my favorite “WTF” writers.

My biggest problem with “WTF” stories is my desire to write them. I tend to still write unsatisfying “WTF” stories, as I’ve not yet found that fine line between “ambiguously odd” and “confusing and stupid.” That doesn’t stop me from trying, though.

There are other noteworthy stories in The Doll Collection (I especially liked the John Langan story and the grisly tale by Stephen Graham Jones), and few duds. Anthologies like this one are among my favorite things to read, because I get a high degree of enjoyment out of them, and also learn so much as a writer. Kudos to Ellen Datlow for not only being a fine anthologist, but for also providing this writer with excellent craft tutorials, year after year.

The Lifetime Stonecoast Experience

A little over two years ago, I was accepted into the Stonecoast MFA program at the University of Southern Maine. I will graduate from that program in about three months. My MFA experience has passed so quickly I have had little opportunity to contemplate it, too consumed with deadlines and residencies and making up stories to ponder what any of it really means.

 

That’s changed recently. I sent my thesis to my mentor last week for one final copy-edit. I have few responsibilities before my final residency. No one expects me to send them a story or a reading response, or anydamnthing. Consequently, I’ve carved out a little free time. A little time to think.

 

And I’ve decided: I’m not graduating.

 

Yes, I’m going to cross that stage in January, and yes, I’m going to get that degree. But I’m determined to take Stonecoast with me after I leave Maine, to keep doing the same things I was assigned to do when I was in the program.

 

The biggest problem with getting an MFA is pretending you’re getting a normal degree, as a means to an end. A MFA may open a few doors, career-wise, but it’s more an opportunity to practice a craft, to make writing and learning about writing a priority. If you look at graduating with your MFA as a terminal event, you run the risk that you’ll put down that pen or turn off that laptop, let your creative gifts go fallow.

 

I can’t let that happen. I know that the only way I can have a writing career is to keep writing, keep reading, keep learning. I have to keep sending out my work, getting my semester grades from the markets instead of my mentors. I have been blessed to be in a program which has transformed me as a writer, and I’ll be damned if I’ll let my creative life wither away because I “graduated.”

 

So. I’m going to keep doing “packets,” twenty-pages of creative work and two reading responses, due on a specified day each month. The reading responses I’ll probably post here. The creative work I’ll be marketing, so I hope you’ll see that too, in a magazine or anthology on the newstand.

 

I better get going. I have to finish reading Brian Evenson’s A Collapse of Horses, a dynamite collection I’m excited to tell you about. And I’ve started a new story, which, while still a jumble in my head, could be a doozy.

 

Oh yeah…note to my muse, my invisible mentor–my monthly due date is the 6th of each month. Just so you know.

Thoughts on Steve and Melanie Tem’s The Man on the Ceiling

If writer stories play with the boundaries of reality/fantasy and truth/invention, stories with autobiographical narrators destroy those boundaries entirely.  When a writer makes herself a character in her own stories it forces readers to question whether what they are reading is fiction at all.  This is further complicated when the author is writing horror or dark fantasy, because the subject implies what we’re reading could never happen, even if the explicit presence of the author suggests otherwise.  Of course, horror/dark fantasy writers know that truth is about more than what is real.  Fantasy bleeds into our waking lives, shapes us, defines us.  Our autobiographies, then, need the language of fantasy in order to tell the truth.

Steve and Melanie Tem know this.  On an extension to the dedication page of their novel The Man on the Ceiling, they tell us, “Everything we’re about to tell you here is true.” Considering one of the main characters in The Man on the Ceiling is the titular boogeyman who lives in the Tems’ house, their opening statement is a bold one, and speaks to the importance of story in a storyteller’s life, the value of fantasy in dealing with painful realities.

The tragic reality that drives the Tems’ novel is the suicide death of their nine year old son, Anthony.  However, Ceiling is much more than a vehicle for the release of their collective grief.  As Steve Tem discusses in a 2009 interview:

I think it was my strong opposition to that notion that fiction was inadequate to “real” life as well as my own belief that there are layers to real life which can only be accessed via the powers of the imagination that made me want to tackle this project…our attempt, at least as far as we were able to take it, was to raise the content of our imaginations to the level of everyday experience and to make it all one continuous narrative.  

And that is exactly what the Tems do: mix imagination and memoir until one can’t be separated from the other. Together the two genres tell the truth about both their daily lives and their creative ones.  

Steve and Melanie take turns narrating sections of Ceiling, their first-person voices meshing seamlessly.  The plot of the novel is amorphous, a collection of stories about the Tems’ childhoods, marriage, and children.  Interspersed with these are scenes where Steve Tem imagines his son as a bird and has a conversation with him on the roof of the house, Melanie Tem sends her father on a deathbed vision quest with his granddaughter, and an odd child lives in an alternate version of the Tems’ house, beckoning to Steve to find him.  Over it all hangs the spectre of the man on the ceiling, mentioned over sixty times, the personification of death, or the inevitability of death, haunting the Tem family:

The man on the ceiling laughs at me as he remains always just out of the reach of my understanding, floating above me on his layered wings, telling me about how, someday, Melanie and my children and everyone I love is going to die and how, after I die, no one is going to remember me no matter how much I write, how much I shamelessly reveal, brushing his sharp fingers against the wallpaper and leaving deep gouges in the walls.  

By the end of the book, Ceiling feels like both a confession and a eulogy, a way to discuss the loss of their son and expose the fears that loss ignited.  Because the Tems have spent most of their adult lives writing fantasy stories, it makes sense they would use the language of fantasy to manage their grief.  Steve Tem admits he has written about his son’s death in other stories , but there is no attempt here to hide behind the guise of another character in another setting; this is Steve Tem talking about the dark at the bottom of the steps in his own home, the dark where “it stinks of cruel impulse and foul inattention and everything you eat bears that faint aroma of despair”.  You can call it extended metaphor, if you want.  You can call it magic realism.  But that’s not what Steve and Melanie Tem call it.  They call it the truth.

Thoughts on House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski

Note: The following is an excerpt from a paper I wrote this semester on metafiction and dark fantasy. I’ll probably publish other chunks of it over the next month.

 Horror fiction is supposed to be strange.  It’s also supposed to make you feel strange; after all, it’s named after the emotion it is attempting to incite.  Sigmund Freud referred to a particular strain of this feeling as “the uncanny” in his seminal 1919 essay of the same name, and admits, “the uncanny as it is depicted in literature, in stories and imaginative productions…is a much more fertile province than the uncanny in real life”.  Jeff VanderMeer once wrote that “The Weird is as much a sensation as it is a mode of writing”, and this sensation is often created by juxtaposing the real with the fantastic, the familiar with the unknown.  Part of the reason for Stephen King’s immense success was his willingness to reject the Gothic traditions of the past. Unlike the crumbling castles and arctic wastes of Stoker’s Dracula and Shelley’s Frankenstein, King placed his supernatural creations in more contemporary feeling hometowns and backyards, mingling with friends and neighbors.  The emphasis on realism makes the weird weirder, the unknown more inscrutable.

Horror writers and weird writers have found ways to evoke the “real world” beyond using familiar settings or characters.  One recent trend of interest is making novels more interactive.  By emphasizing the role of the reader and making her a more active participant, interactive stories gain a sense of immediacy, a presence that seems to extend beyond the printed page.  Most of these novels also incorporate multimedia elements–fake magazine articles, blog posts, screenshots from imaginary web pages– further connecting the work to the world of the reader.  At the same time, this interactive approach amplifies the oddness of any supernatural or fantastic events in the story.  The “realness” of the text makes the “unreal” aspects of the story appear more ambiguous or mysterious, and a more interactive text tends to increase possible interpretations, not limit them.

A good example of this intersection of ambiguity and reader participation is Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves.  Originally available in parts and later in whole on Danielewski’s personal website prior to its print publication, Leaves tells the story of the Navidson family’s encounter with a strange house.  Upon returning from a family vacation, the Navidsons discover a corridor has suddenly materialized between their living room and the children’s room, and the interior dimensions of the house keep shifting.  Will Navidson, a renowned filmmaker, ropes his brother and a trio of explorers into investigating the corridor, with disastrous results.

Danielewski’s basic plot, while intriguing, is not entirely new–Kathe Koja’s award-winning novel The Cipher (about a hole that suddenly appears in an apartment building storage closet) covers similar ground.  The real appeal of House of Leaves is its structure, as Danielewski surrounds the Navidson’s story with layers of commentary, criticism and associated narratives.  The tale of the Navidsons is presented as a critical nonfiction work, The Navidson Record (with footnotes), by a blind author named Zampano, whose mysterious death brings the work into the hands of Johnny Truant, who reads The Navidson Record, comments on it, and is changed by it.  Many of the footnoted comments are scholarly analyses of The Navidson Record from theorists of many disciplines, providing yet another layer of interpretation to Danielewski’s main story.

The manipulation of the narrative in House of Leaves extends to the text itself.   Some pages are clotted with columns of text and blue-lined text boxes, while others have only one or two words on a page.  A footnote denying any comparison between the Navidson house and specific styles or examples of architecture stretches for eight pages.  Some of the novel’s text is written upside down or in a spiral shape.  Danielewski, whose father was a filmmaker, admits he was inspired by film to shape the typography of his book: “That had been the design from the very beginning: to use the image of text itself in a way that had been studied very carefully for a hundred years by exquisite film-makers and to increase the reader’s experience as they progress through the book”.

All of this manipulation of narrative and text presents a dilemma for the reader: how does one read this book? Do you read the main story about the Navidsons, then go back and read Johnny Truant’s story embedded in the footnotes? Do you skip the extensive (and tedious) footnotes, and only read the shorter ones? Do you use the index at the back of the book, or pay much attention to the three appendices? Danielewski has cleverly designed his novel as a puzzle, from plot (Johnny Truant finds late in the book that a rock band is using House of Leaves–Johnny’s unpublished annotation of The Navidson Record–as an inspiration), to interpretation (almost every page contains footnoted critical analysis by somebody) to the reading experience itself.  Leaves manages to mimic reality and obscure it, like a science textbook torn apart and haphazardly reassembled.  It confuses and delights, and does so almost wholly due to the metafictional elements Danielewski uses.