“House Of Leaves” by Mark Z. Danielewski (2000)

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“This is not for you.”

There are some books that pass into legend as being unlike anything else. House of Leaves is one of those. It has sat on my shelf for years at this point, daring me to pluck up the courage to explore it. As much a work of art as a story, it begs to be read, even though you know it’s not going to be easy. Given everyone else seems to be using quarantine as a time to get through those books they’ve been putting off forever (a lot of people are struggling through Middlemarch as we speak), it was literally now or never.

Johnny Truant, an LA tattoo artist, has discovered a manuscript in the apartment of a dead man called Zampanò that is an academic study of a film called The Navidson Record. Truant is unable to find any evidence of the film’s existence, however, and many of the references that Zampanò alludes to don’t exist either. Truant shares the whole study with us, interjecting with his own footnotes and edits.

The bulk of the text focuses on The Navidson Record, a film made by photojournalist Will Navidson, who has recently moved into a new house in Virginia. With cameras set up in every room, he intends to use the move as a project to reunite his strained family relationships, but the house has other ideas. Upon returning home one day, the family discover a closet that wasn’t there before they left. Upon further analysis, Navidson discovers that the house is a quarter-inch bigger on the inside than the outside. Calling in his brother and some friends to examine this irregularity, Navidson soon decides that they should enter this new closet, only to find that it leads to an impossibly huge labyrinth, all in black, that changes and warps constantly and seems to have no end. Compelled to document his findings, Navidson begins to construct the film that will make him famous, but there will be costs and dangers that he cannot yet dream of.

Whew. I freely admit that there was a lot of skim-reading taking place here. While the bulk of the story – that of the house and the Navidson family’s relationship with it – is what drives the narrative, none of it is as simple as that. Truant leaves a lot of footnotes, sometimes explaining some specific of Zampanò’s text, or sometimes talking about what’s happening in his own life. Some of these footnotes run on for multiple pages, and it quickly becomes clear that he is not a reliable narrator by any means. I skimmed a lot of these as I didn’t find his story as interesting as the main one, so I admit I may have missed out on some things. Nonetheless, I feel I got the gist.

The piece is as much a work of art as it is a story, and as my friend suggested, it seems to be pushing the idea of what a novel is or can be. Arguments can be made as to whether it worked or not given there is nothing else like this, but I think, while the story is good – and genuinely terrifying – it is the style that people keep returning to this book for. Every contributor has their own font, which is mesmerising for a start, and I’ve already mentioned the long footnotes, but there is so much more going on here. Some pages contain just a few words, others contain overlapping threads, with six different strands of story or footnote tied together, arriving in text boxes or upside down. Some bits require a mirror to read, others will need you to flip the book upside down. Sometimes the text mirrors the action of the story, such as moving up the page when a character is climbing, or shrinking to a tiny area in the middle of the page when Navidson is crawling through a small gap. There are transcripts and interviews, snatches of music, scientific explanations on mythology or science that seem to serve little purpose. Some pages are missing, others have text crossed out, and in the lengthy appendices, there are drawings and photographs to corroborate the evidence of this film and house that may or may not exist. Danielewski is some kind of mad genius and this book is truly the work of someone either incredibly intelligent or frighteningly mad. Some call it a horror story, others a romance, but all that seems certain is that anyone who comes into contact with this house in any way – including just reading about it – has their own interpretation.

I’m not a bit sorry I read it, but I’m also not in a hurry to return. The house changes you.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Here, The World Entire” by Anwen Kya Hayward (2016)

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“I hear his heartbeat first.”

If you’ve been lingering around this blog long enough, you’ll know I have a particular fondness for Greek mythology. I’m no expert, but I like to keep my hand in, enjoying the stories of the heroes and gods who live their lives like a historical soap opera with added magic. Anwen Kya Hayward, is someone who knows what she’s talking about. Academically instructed up to the eyeballs in the mythological studies, Anwen and I met through social media several years ago, and I have always enjoyed her passion for her subject. I’m a lazy git, so I can’t claim now that as soon as she was published, I snapped the book up, but nonetheless, here we are. Only six months late.

The tiny novella is based around the myth of Medusa, confined to her cave after being punished by Athena for something that wasn’t her fault. Once beautiful, Medusa’s golden hair has been replaced with a nest of snakes, and anyone she looks at turns to stone. Perseus intrudes upon her quiet cave, telling her that he needs her help, and was sent by Athena to ask for it. If only she would come out and meet him…

The main narrative is interspersed with events from Medusa’s history, primarily the events that caused her to be transformed into this monster, and an incident where she accidentally wiped out a whole village with her powers. Often seen as a villain in modern interpretations of Greek mythology, it is really something to see her here portrayed with humanity, sealing herself off from the world to protect everyone else as much as herself. She knows she is dangerous and doesn’t actively want to hurt anyone else, even shouting through the cave entrance that very fact to Perseus, although acknowledging that he will die if he comes in.

As mentioned, it’s a short book but I consumed it in an hour or so, supine on a sun lounger on one of the hottest days in living memory. Hayward is economical in her language, and not a word is wasted, building up an incredibly rich and beautiful world set entirely in a cave, where neither character can look at the other. Medusa, naturally, rarely describes anything she can see, so much is made of what she can hear, using aural clues to work out what Perseus is doing outside her cave. For something written, it’s incredibly unusual and very well done.

It’s a gorgeous little read, with a real sense of tragedy about it, as we explore the inner workings of a monster’s brain. It seems to tie into my recent readings of Frankenstein and Wonder, which also deal with not judging people based on their appearance or first impressions. Medusa is sympathetic, but if you know how the old myth ends, you’ll know why that’s a difficult thing to have to deal with here. A sublime piece of work, and I look forward to more.

“Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley (1818)

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“You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings.”

“I’m reading Frankenstein at the moment,” I said over Thursday afternoon cocktails (because that’s the sort of life I have). My friend looked at me from over his Manhattan and said, “Boring, isn’t it?” I sighed. “Yes.”

“Thing is,” he explained. “You have to read it through the lens of Frankenstein’s own hubris. He is melodramatic and you’ve gotta go with that to make it tolerable.” Yes, not only is this history’s first science fiction novel, it’s also probably the first emo committed to paper. Frankenstein spends the vast majority of the book moping, hand-wringing, cursing the universe, sobbing and generally wallowing in despair, leading him to be rather an unpleasant and irritating hero.

Cultural osmosis is such that when people think of Frankenstein, and this includes myself, they tend to picture a spooky castle, a stormy night, the hunchbacked assistant Igor and the birth of the Creature. Turns out that this is entirely becuase of the films. The novel is a different beast altogether. There’s no Igor here, and Frankenstein certainly doesn’t appear to be living in a castle. He’s much younger than I anticipated too, having been not long out of university, not even completing his degree, so any title of “Doctor” is a misnomer too. The actual event of him reanimating the Creature feels almost “blink and you’ll miss it”. In fact, I’m loathe to say, I did. It was only when Frankenstein encounters his creation in the Alps later on that I realised his experiment had been a success. I had to go back and read the pages again and there, buried beneath more pages of crying scientist, is a short section where it’s noted that life was indeed created, but Frankenstein immediately freaked out and hid in his bedroom while the Creature fled.

The action is really three stories, each nested within one another. It opens with Captain Robert Walton sailing a ship to explore the North Pole. He is writing letters to his sister, and details that he and his men saw a large, humanoid figure piloting a dog sled across the ice. Not long after, they take on board the very ill Victor Frankenstein who then tells his story.

Frankenstein tells of his life and his scientific experiments. A lot of time his given over to his family life and history, so the science almost seems to become incidental to the story. His tale is interrupted in the middle when he meets the Creature again. The Creature then tells his story and explains that since he ran away he’s been living in a hovel next to a cottage of some poor people, learning to read and speak, and about the world, from their conversations. He demands of Frankenstein that he make him a wife to love, as he doesn’t want to be the one being in the world who is forbidden from having anyone to love.

The story then goes back to Frankenstein’s exploits and how he becomes haunted by the Creature and his plans to bring to life a bride for his creation. Eventually deciding that he doesn’t want to bring about anymore monsters, the Creature then begins to extract revenge and make his creator’s life a living hell. The story ends with Captain Walton writing to his sister again, telling her Frankenstein’s story.

The thing is, the bits that don’t involve Frankenstein are easily the best bits. The Creature has a wonderful way of speaking and is deeply insightful, but I have so many questions. How is it he has to learn about to read and write and speak all over again, when he was once living before? He knows nothing, which seems a bit bizarre to me, although given the whole nature of the novel, it seems odd to focus on something like that. Frankenstein himself isn’t a likeable man, I felt, and many academics have since claimed that he’s really just written to mock Lord Byron, who Shelley knew well. An overemotional drama queen who dropped out of education because he thought he knew better than everyone else, and hated when things didn’t go his way? Sounds about right.

I’m not sorry I read it, but my brief love affair with the classics has, possibly, come to a natural resting point again. It’s remarkable how little of the original novel has seeped into popular culture, but then I suppose that’s the power of film, and maybe this is one where, to get the real sense of drama and horror, it needs to be more visual.

Of course, in this case there is a version of Frankenstein that is definitely better than the book. Morecambe and Wise did it years ago with guest Ian Carmichael. The usual nonsense occurs, with Ian occasionally slipping into song, Eric convinced that he’s in a pantomime, and Ernie being the least terrifying incarnation of the monster ever. Take it away, boys: