Every year, as Halloween draws near, I get to thinking about what makes books scary. As a genre, horror hasn’t scared me in years. Although the thought of getting eaten by a zombie or slashed by a psycho killer is certainly unpleasant, it’s less terrifying than more realistic fears of being mauled by a tiger or, more prosaically, hit by a car while crossing the street. Dying at the hands of a Michael Myers or a Freddie Krueger might not be the most pleasant way to go, but at least you go. No small consolation with the state of health insurance these days. For a taste of real terror, imagine surviving a hit and run. If the colostomy bag doesn’t scare you, the hospital bills will.
Which is precisely the point. Much more frightening than physical terror is existential horror. The bounds of physical terror are coterminous with death, existential horror, however, is eternal. H.P. Lovecraft understood this intimately. His best stories rarely end in death; confronted with a profound and disturbing truth about the nature of existence, his protagonists simply fall into madness. The greatest fear of both life and death, to paraphrase Hamlet, is not sleep, but an endless nightmare. Horror writers rarely understand this essential truth: vampires and zombies are scary for what they do, Cthulu and Ann Coulter for what they represent.
Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves is a book that “gets” existential horror. Reduced to its essence, the story is completely innocuous. A couple moves into a new house only to find the inside is bigger than the outside. Not exactly Hammer Films material. The ramifications of this discovery, however, draw into question not only their cherished assumptions about their own lives, but also their most basic understanding of how the world works. The result is an insidious, creeping horror that imbues everything around them, from their everyday possessions to the literal and figurative foundations of their home. Adding layer upon layer of intrigue and fear, this “story” is nested in a second story about a man who has written a book about a documentary based on the family’s ordeal (that’s a mouthful…). This story, in turn, is nested in a third meta-story about the book’s publication. The effect is disorienting, fascinating, and, as the book draws you into its puzzle, disturbing.
House of Leaves doesn’t just frighten, though. It is a virtuoso effort. Taking full advantage of his medium, Danielewski paints the page like a canvas, exploiting both knife-sharp prose, painfully clever post-modernist narrative devices, and typographical tricks to draw the reader into his tale of horror. Danielweski’s website has hosted a nine year long discussion of the book, a testament to not only its compelling narrative power, but also its intellectual weight: the book features copious footnotes that touch on such favorite po-mo topics as Heidegger and semiotics. If you’re looking for some real scares this Halloween, House of Leaves delivers both the tricks and the treats.
Bonus Links: The Navidson Record, a short film prominently featured in the book.