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.