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House of Leaves
Mark Danielewski

review by: Matthew Scrivner
Date: 10/18/02

Horror is marginalized as genre, and no one (besides genre authors themselves) has bothered to ask some really interesting questions about it. Like, what makes something scary? Is fear internal or external, a part of us, or totally apart from us so that we reject it for it's very alien nature? What does what someone fears imply about that person? What happens to someone who faces his or her fear? Are the things we fear reflections of personal struggles or do they symbolize some sort of greater social or cultural struggle? Is horror something bigger than mere fear? Is the truly horrifying, as H.P. Lovecraft would have it, the result of confronting the vast, the alien and unknowable? This book addresses all of this on multiple levels, and in a format that is challenging and carefully conceived. Not an easy read, but for the patient, there is much to be gained.

House of Leaves is meta-horror, a horror story that is oddly self-aware, self-referential, self-contained, a place where even the printing of the book, the appearance of the sentences on the pages, directly reflect the horror content. What the hell does that mean?

Ok well first, the underlying story: A young family moves to suburbia and discovers that their house is expanding and shifting of it's own accord, is bigger on the inside than is physically possible from the outside. A hallway opens up on the living room wall one evening and leads into a seemingly endless maze of black corridors and hallways. The characters decide to explore. The result, as you can imagine, is horrible.

Juxtaposed to this internal idea of labyrinths is text that is labyrinthine, that wanders every vertical and horizontal direction across the page, in some sections you literally have to hold the book to a mirror to read the intentionally backwards printing. Every single instance of the word "house" throughout the book is printed in blue while the rest of the text is black. Why? This book is a puzzle. The reward for completing it is, in this case, directly proportional to the energy expended seeking answers.

What sort of answers? Here's one of the more abstract examples: One of the things that makes an incident or locale horrifying is what it implies about the world itself. Not only that there can be scary things, or that we know fear, but that even equipped with scholarship and art and media (film and photography playing such a huge role in the book) we still cannot control, understand, or even approach why some things are inherently terrifying.

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