Home Sweet Horror

Mark Z. Danielewski scares up a creepy cult classic.

House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski. Pantheon. Paper, $20.

IN AN OVER-CROWDED publishing world fueled by demographic pandering and low-risk investments, it's rare to stumble across a novel that blatantly defies categorization. Without a readily identifiable genre tag branded upon its spine, truly experimental fiction in the contemporary marketplace is doomed to gather dust bunnies on the bottom shelves of America's bookstores. Occasionally, however, bizarro texts manage to sneak into the mainstream, slipping under the radar of convention by disguising themselves as something slightly more familiar.

House of Leaves, a complexly trippy, almost frighteningly assured first effort from Mark Z. Danielewski, is just such a book. Although consigned to the horror genre by its publisher, this hallucinatory morphine-drip of a book hardly resembles anything in the current horror field, or much of anything else in current fiction, for that matter.

Although at times this strange work is almost unbearably scary, it is at heart a devilishly inventive work of postmodern alchemy--a marvel of ideas, imagination and expectation-bashing that surfs between psychological thriller, philosophical treatise, dark comedy, literary hoax and ironic wackiness. In short, how such a quirkily literate novel managed to ooze through the cracks of mainstream publishing remains as much a mystery as the narrative itself.

The actual plot of this off-kilter horror show offers merely the tiniest of baby steps into its sticky web of textured meaning. When self-absorbed slacker Johnny Truant attempts to organize and publish the numerous fragments of a bizarre manuscript written by a now-dead blind man, the project slowly takes possession of his soul and hurls him over the brink of sanity.

In true postmodern fashion, the spooky text is a densely convoluted commentary on a documentary film called The Navidson Record, about a house that defies all laws of physics. Filmed by Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Will Navidson, the movie documents the Navidson family's attempts to unlock the strange secrets of their newly purchased suburban nightmare.

Starting with the sublimely creepy (the inside of the house is found, for no apparent reason, to be larger than the outside) and escalating into full-blown freakiness (mysterious hallways with 500-foot descending stairwells begin popping up throughout the home, entire expeditions of trained spelunkers begin disappearing into the black bowels of the house's funhouse corridors, etc.), the house ignites in Navidson the obsessive need to explore and record his home's seemingly endless, completely dark, and constantly mutating underground labyrinths that seem to point the way to his own monstrous demise.

As horrors mount upon horrors, the family slowly begins to unravel under the weight of its home's unknowable secrets, and Navidson's search eventually becomes a sweat-soaked exploration of truth, perception and existential dread.

Bracketing Navidson's headlong collision with dark destiny are Johnny Truant's increasingly hallucinatory attempts to reconstruct, via the mysterious manuscript, the "real" story behind the supposedly true-to-life Navidson Record. The film itself has itself become a much-debated cultural phenomenon (the inability of modern recording technologies to capture and re-create reality becomes a constant inquiry in the book). And as Navidson's madness begins to bleed out of his film and onto the pages of the manuscript, finally burrowing into Johnny's addled brain, the terrors uncovered in the house at 240 Walnut Lane begin to take on mythical proportions.

While the narrative of House of Leaves, with its snarky ping-ponging text-within-a-text structure and use of suburban bliss as metaphor for the dread of the unknown, would itself make an interesting read, it's Danielewski's playful swipes at literary conventions that elevate the novel onto a higher plane.

Starting by submerging his own identity as a writer beneath the fictionalized reality of The Navidson Record (no photo or biographical information on Danielewski is to be found in the book), the author structures Leaves as the actual fragmented manuscript that ensnares and tortures the hapless Johnny. The manuscript and the novel even share the same name.

Constructed from a jumble of transcripts, first-person accounts, copious footnotes, digressive asides, photo collages and cut-and-paste text that often literally crawls up the sides of the page, the "manuscript" itself begins to take on the form of actual madness. While the avant-garde page layouts that clutter the text can become a bit too clever and show-offy, they do ultimately succeed in re-creating for readers the warped mindsets of the book's various narrators, as well as in questioning the convention of presenting narrative information in a "straight" fashion.

Rather than using the film-within-a-text concept as an empty exercise in po-mo hipness, Danielewski uses it to perform a rather ingenious critique of image culture. A good portion of the manuscript examines the cultural hoopla surrounding the successful theatrical release of The Navidson Record by Miramax Films in 1993, and the subsequent media frenzy ignited by its is-it-real-or-is-it-fake reception.

Stuffing Leaves with a densely packed series of faux commentaries from real-life public figures such as Stephen King, Camille Paglia and Harold Bloom on the subject of the Navidson family's strange ordeal, Danielewski seems to revel in poking fun at the way contemporary culture filters its reality through televisual images, then annoints "experts" to decode that new reality for the masses.

Casting a wide net for his satire, Danielwski also manages to volley wicked zingers at pop psychology (various self-help experts offer pretentious explanations for the demise of the Navidson marriage and the symbolic significance of the house), our reliance on hard science to explain the abnormal (numerous scientists fail miserably in their attempts to rationalize the house's defiance of physical reality), and the nature of spirituality in modern society (Navidson's quest to penetrate the infinite void unfolding within his home eventually strips him of all earthly possessions and forces him to nakedly confront the meaning of his own existence in the novel's strangely poignant climax).

While the intellectual underpinnings of Leaves are deftly drawn and served up with a convincingly drugged-out netherlogic, one of Danielewski's major accomplishments is in linking the philosophical dread of the unknown with flat-out, balls-to-the-wall horror, using the irrational fear of what may be lurking in the dark as metaphor for existential angst.

While much of the novel is not for the squeamish (the unholy presence that continually stalks Navidson on his journey, yet which refuses to fully reveal itself, is definitely the stuff from which nightmares are made), its terrors are of a decidedly non-visceral bent. No blood and guts are spilled across its pages, yet it still manages to frighten through the power of suggestion, creating an enigmatic terror that exists just outside the normal range of vision (a lost art in much of today's slice'n'dice horror fiction).

If Leaves is indeed the horror novel its publisher claims it to be, it pledges allegiance not to the contemporary horror genre, but to the more subtly creepy works of Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. They understood that a bump in the night is far more unsettling than an axe in the head.

Audiences looking for a light read would be well advised not to check into House of Leaves. However, what the book does offer adventurous bookworms is a malevolent, chaotic and strikingly beautiful vision of madness and the unknown--an open-ended vision of the abyss that leaves the reader open to the same multitude of terrors that haunt the doomed protagonists.

It's also a freaked-out romp through the rubble of our pop landscape, mixing references ranging from Sartre's No Exit to The Amityville Horror with a surreal swizzle stick, creating a gonzo-eyed view of humanity that almost guarantees the book cult status (though perhaps not mainstream success).

And, most importantly, it heralds the arrival of a major literary talent in Mark Z. Danielewski, who has peered into the void and spun our primal nightmares into a singularly ingenious work of art.