It by Stephen King

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It’s a mystery how we ever manage to grow up (and I don’t know whether we actually do manage to). While reading this novel, I thought and remembered a lot of things about growing up (my own growing up, things I thought I’d forgotten, but now they came back, but I’ll forget them again), about being a loser, and about all the shit even the most average kid (who doesn’t live in a horror novel) goes through before becoming an adult – and I was truly amazed how we can ever live long enough to become adults.

I, for example, wasn’t a conspicuous loser and I wasn’t bullied, but I got a hunch that I was saved from this only because I had pretty developed instincts of self-preservation, so I carefully guarded my vulnerability, and didn’t make it public knowledge when, say, in my early teens I had a crush on Leonardo DiCaprio or on the cute guy from the other class. I had a classmate, though, who was naïve and honest enough not to hide her crush on one of the Backstreet Boys guys, and she got picked on by the cool kids quite badly. After a while she was bullied not only because of her Backstreet Boys weakness, but for everything and anything, and this still hurts her. Which is no wonder – being a loser isn’t particularly awesome, especially when you’re a loser on your own.

Not many writers can feel and describe this so well as Stephen King, who deals with losers in a disproportionate amount of his books, losers who must bravely face various horrors, not because they’re so adventurous – just because that’s how life is. The horror can be the simple terribleness of everyday life, and it can also be the crazy bloody gut-slicing gruesome stuff of horror movies, but the distinction doesn’t matter that much because the horror is always brought on and created by someone’s imagination – which, of course, doesn’t mean that it is not real.

There’s certainly a lot of gory stuff here, sure, but my imagination is probably not what it used to be, it’s the pragmatic imagination of an adult, so I can’t really get scared of Things living in the gutters and of cities where Evil lives. On the other hand, I can get extremely scared of the average horrors of average lives – of people not paying attention, withholding their love, not giving a shit, being deliberate assholes, being violent – and King is very good at depicting these kinds of horrors. (I’d say he’s better at it than depicting the gory kind.) And he’s also good at depicting and evoking emotions – this didn’t surprise me; I often feel deep distress and sadness when reading his books, but I think this was the first time he even made me cry. A lot.

My favorite part, by the way, is when one of the characters, Bill, who later becomes a writer, goes off on a rant during one of his university literature classes about why the hell it’s necessary for a story to be deliberately politically, culturally and socially relevant, since a story, if it’s a good one, will be full of political, cultural and social relevance anyway, automatically, and there’s no need to force all that stuff into it. I don’t know if King follows his (character’s) philosophy deliberately, but his books are like this. There’s so much in them, especially in such a long one as this, that I won’t even start discussing it here, but I guess I learned more about contemporary American ways and reality from King than from all my university courses on the subject. So yeah, his books are full of relevance. And still – his books are stories. And I read for stories.

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Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

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The carnival:

I have a hard time imagining how carnivals and circuses can continue to function; I know no-one who likes them. Of course, I probably haven’t yet spoken with enough people about carnivals and circuses, but those I’ve spoken with all hate and/or fear them. Me too.

Friendships, especially the big, eternal ones:

The sense that no, they won’t last forever seems to have been coded into them from the very first moment. This is how it is here, too. Right from the opening scene where Will, the eternal American good boy politely replies to the questions of the lightning-rod salesman, while his best friend, Jim, the eternal American trouble-maker and trouble-seeker, a boy instinctively drawn to everything weird, unsettling and dark, keeps quiet.

One of the basic elements of novels about young boys growing up is that there’s a moment, somewhere around the age of 14, when the innocent boy-life is first invaded by adult life, and sure, you can go on pretending for a couple more years that nothing’s happened but the fruit stolen from the neighborhood trees on warm summer nights won’t taste quiet as sweet anymore. Bradbury captures the terrible melancholy of this perfectly.

Death:

I don’t know when the right time to learn about death comes – but whenever the knowledge comes, it always feels way too early. I’m not thinking about a particular death, rather about the realization or acceptance of the fact that death exists. After this moment, it seems we must keep asking ourselves: would I ride the magic carnival ride that can take me back or forward in time? And if I would, in which direction would I ride it?

Still – I was expecting this novel to be darker and more horrible. But Bradbury can always surprise me with his eternal optimism, his ability to see the good everywhere, and his ability to honestly believe that death doesn’t exist. (Why he writes about all this in such an extremely flowery, overcrowded language is a mystery, though.)

John Dies at the End by David Wong

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David Wong is the editor-in-chief of Cracked, and even though I don’t specifically remember reading his articles, the magazine’s style is quite unique and distinct. It’s very modern, deeply embedded in pop culture and American culture, intelligent, sarcastic, nerdy and it doesn’t shy away from cheap jokes, either – and somehow this combination appeals to me.

This novel feels very much like Cracked. It’s a horror (parody) with a lot of blood, with horrible monsters and with all the stock elements of the genre, plus it also features a million dick jokes, and besides all this, it’s nerdy to to core, so it’s entirely possible for the protagonists to argue whether it’s correct to use the apostrophe in the word „Morrison’s” when it’s displayed on the nameplate on someone’s front door.

And in a strange way, this is one of the most American novels I’ve recently (or perhaps ever) read. It’s American in the small details – for example, in that someone here once eats chicken fried steak. I’ve never encountered the concept of chicken fried steak in books before, I’ve only heard about it from an American acquaintance, and it was weird to see it in a novel.

It made me think how much is inevitably lost in translation – and I mean translation across cultures here – and my guess is that a lot. Because, for instance, chicken fried steak might have all kinds of cultural connotations, and if you’re American, you’ll probably immediately have some ideas or prejudices about the person who eats a chicken fried steak. Perhaps you’ll get an idea about his background, his home state, and so on. And here I come and read this as a European, and just maybe I understand the significance of this particular thing, but I’m sure I miss the significance of a whole array of other very-American details.

Anyway, the novel offers lots of American trivia and cultural and lifestyle details – which is something I like as I’m deeply interested in things American.

But on to the question of how this is as a novel – it’s pretty good. It works. It’s about two young slackers who somehow get involved in a very dramatic situation after taking a drug called soy sauce. The drug’s users gain special abilities and extremely sharply tuned senses, and in the case of the protagonists, this leads to some bizarre events where they have to face terribly horrifying unearthly creatures, and they also have to assume to role of superheroes.

But in the end this is too much for me – it’s too long, too dense, and after reading it I feel the same way I feel when, on certain nights when I’m only capable of passive consumption, I read Cracked way too long. I have a good time, and I even think through stuff while I’m reading, but after getting to the last of my 63 open browser tabs, my main thought is usually that: oh my god, I should have gone to bed hours ago, because this is smart, funny, and even thoughtful, but certainly not such a life-altering and fantastic experience that would justify staying awake until the wee hours.

Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin

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Roman Polanski’s film of the same title is one of my all-time favorite fear-of-the-unknown movies, I’ve seen it several times. While I was reading the novel, I automatically pictured the images of the film in my mind, and for a while I was struggling to decide how good the book is on its own. After a while, though, I concluded that it’s good.

As for the story: young and bohemian Rosemary and her husband, Guy, an up-and-coming actor suddenly get a chance to move into the most prestigious, most elegant apartment building of New York City. This is such a famous and posh apartment building that it’s enough to tell the cab driver: „To the Bramford, please” – and the driver will immediately know what you’re talking about. So yes, living at such an address is surely a much more trendy thing to do than to tell the driver to take you to a nameless street in the suburbs and then guide him carefully among hundreds of identical houses.

Anyway, I’m digressing.

Rosemary and Guy, of course, gladly take the chance to move to this famous address, even though an old friend tries to warn them, saying that the house doesn’t exactly have the best reputation, and many dark deeds had been committed there. And as it usually goes with evil houses, the troubles start shortly after the couple settle in. The tenants of Bramford slowly start to mentally devour the young couple, and when Rosemary gets pregnant, things really start to spiral out of control.

Rosemary’s Baby is a delightfully multi-layered novel. First, it works as a horror/haunted house story – as an urban haunted house story, where hell isn’t the house itself, but the people who live there. (As for me, I can hardly think of anything more terrifying than an old house, with old-fashioned and dangerous-looking elevators and with a bunch of curious and gently overbearing pensioners for neighbors, who keep insisting on inviting you to dinner, and who knock on your door six times a day just to bring you a little dessert and to kindly ask whether you need anything from the shop.)

And Rosemary also starts to find this state of affairs oppressive, she gets suspicious about the oh-so-kind interest and care the neighbors show in her well-being – but the chances for getting away get slimmer and slimmer, and the world out there slowly recedes to a distance that’s completely out of reach.

It’s truly a horror, make no mistake – and we might even just ignore the accidental little detail that the enchanting tenants of Bramford are supposedly serving Satan. (I think this whole occult-mystical-satanist story-line can be interpreted as symbolic, and all the evil practices of the neighbors can be interpreted as some good, old-fashioned manipulative psychological games.)

And the other layer of the novel is just as terrifying: the story of a marriage crisis. Even though Rosemary and Guy look like the perfect couple, their relationship is tainted with suspicion, distrust and quiet frustration from the very beginning. Rosemary’s and Guy’s marriage games are centered around the topic of having children, and there’s everything here you can imagine to make your blood run cold: a wife who wants to have a baby so badly that she’s half-planning to accidentally get pregnant; a suspicious husband who would prefer to postpone the business of family-making for a few more years to concentrate on his career, so he follows his wife’s periods with the utmost vigilance to avoid any nasty surprises, yet, in a weak or remorseful moment says, OK, let’s make a baby; there’s sex with a sleeping/drugged wife; and then there’s a terrible coldness and growing distance between Rosemary and Guy during the pregnancy, coupled with anger, pain, and silent accusations. Like I say – it could hardly get more dreadful than this.

There’s no need, after all, for any kind of satanist practices here – if I read this novel only as a possible story of a marriage and pregnancy, it’s already more than enough to freak me out.

And what makes the novel especially good is that it’s not easy (or downright impossible) to decide what really happens, and who is in their right mind and who isn’t. Does Rosemary just go a little crazy during her pregnancy? Is it all in her mind? Is it just paranoia? Or is the house and/or its tenants truly evil? Everything is obscure, deliciously ambiguous here. In the end – it’s a dark delight to read this novel, but delight it is.

Different Seasons by Stephen King

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King claims in his afterword to this book of four novellas that he’s not very good at writing delicate and elegant prose – and I agree with his self-assessment. What he’s good at, though, is writing stories, and whenever I read or re-read one of his books, I tend to enjoy his writing a lot.

The first novella, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption is mainly good because it’s the basis for the film. After re-reading the novella, I quickly watched the film again, too, and I concluded that I liked the film better than King’s text. It seems to me that the film allows sufficient time for things to develop while the novella feels more rushed, and the film is more balanced than King’s prose. The film wouldn’t exist without King’s novella, though, so I don’t complain much.

The second novella, Apt Pupil is the least successful one in the book. Perhaps it doesn’t make sense to compare the novellas to each other, as King says in the afterword that the book is made up of stories that have nothing to do with each other and there’s no underlying organizing principle here, so it’s possible to talk about each story on its own. However, seeing that they are actually in the same book, and given the fact that I tend to read stories in a book in the order in which they are presented, it’s hard for me to ignore what comes before and after a particular story. So: both in comparison with the other novellas, and viewed on its own, Apt Pupil isn’t very good.

It’s an extremely long, convoluted, meandering story that deals with a lot of issues but manages to avoid dealing with the essence. The story is about a war criminal, an old Nazi hiding in the United States, and about a high school boy who develops a morbid fascination with the horrors of Nazi death camps. And yes, it’s horrifying: what a sick imagination can do, and it’s painful to see what emptiness and perversion lies behind the everyday, perfectly average, perfectly American nice-boy façade of the main character. However, in this topic I’d rather recommend American Psycho – because that’s much better than this story.

The third novella, The Body is my favorite from this book. It’s an excellent story about young kids on the brink of adulthood, about going on boyish adventures, about growing up, about the loss of innocence. And I mean the innocence of the mind here: that transient state, that last moment, week, summer when we’re all still just kids – fooling around, pretending to be heroes, adventurers, explorers; when it doesn’t matter yet whether our friends are jerks or not; when girls haven’t yet come into the picture; when no-one cares yet what the future will bring.

And the way King depicts this fragile and fleeting period is beautiful, lyrical and perhaps even delicate and elegant at places. In any case, he manages to move me to tears a couple of times (and not with the awfulness of his prose, like in Apt Pupil).

The last novella, The Breathing Method is a paranormal story, not exactly horror, more like an exercise in the uncanny. It’s nicely wrapped up in another, equally mysterious framing story, and while it’s not the most innovative mystery story ever, it’s strangely captivating and magical. I think King can be great when he doesn’t try to be too intellectual and artistic, and he doesn’t do that here – he only tells a story. And he’s really good at telling stories.

Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk

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Chuck Palahniuk’s book is an intriguing, modern, and successful take on an ancient story-telling technique. In the frame of the narrative, we meet a number of screwed-up would-be artists who all hide shameful faults or sins in their past, and who all answer a tempting newspaper ad that offers a three-month retreat with all expenses paid, all necessities provided. The wannabe writers are all eager to jump on the opportunity as they imagine that far from the madding crowd they will finally be able to write their masterpieces, and then return to their regular life all renewed.

Instead of an idyllic writers’ community, however, they find themselves in a gloomy, abandoned, old theater building where – true – they have everything they need to stay alive, but the simple fact that the circumstances are not exactly as they imagined is enough for them to feel cheated. And just as in their real life they always found an excuse for not writing, here, too, shut off from the world, they always manage to blame their circumstances and avoid writing altogether.

Despite the fact that the characters don’t write the supposed masterpieces that have been blooming in their minds for long, they still become artists, creative people – doubly so. First, they come up with the idea that they make a novel – or rather: a large-scale, bloody, bound-for-success drama – out of their own lives, and jointly they create the fiction that they were forced into the role of the victim and sentenced to three months of suffering by the unknown evil who put in the newspaper ad they replied to. And second, while they get deeply immersed into their roles as victims, they tell stories to pass the time. These stories take up the bulk of the book.

A couple of literary parallels are immediately obvious here – some of them are mentioned in the book, too. The structure of Haunted – that is, the way the true or fictitious stories told by the characters are wedged in between the present-day, real events – resembles the structure of The Canterbury Tales and Decameron. Moreover, the characters of Haunted often mention the holiday taken by Byron and his company by Lake Geneva, where they all agreed to write a horror story – and they all seem to identify with Byron and company. And as regards a couple of plot elements and the way sin/crime and punishment are connected, the novel resembles Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None: in Haunted, just like in Christie’s novel, the characters all decide for themselves that they leave their real life behind and trust their fate to complete strangers.

Despite all these parallels and similarities, Haunted is still original and not at all boring – because Palahniuk uses the possibilities inherent in his chosen narrative structure very well and he asks lots of intriguing questions. Reading this book, you might wonder – among other things – about the questions of what makes reality reality, and what makes fiction fiction, and how the environment shapes the way people perceive themselves. (Like I said, Haunted is set in an abandoned theater, and it seems that the setting forces the characters to imagine themselves as if they were the cast for a play, and makes them live their lives according to an unwritten script during the three months of their confinement.) And the fact that the characters – while living through their carefully constructed tragic present – share their true stories with one another can make you wonder how you construct reality from stories, and how you construct another person’s personality from the stories he chooses to tell. (And of course, we mustn’t forget that the real stories told by the characters can just as easily be fictitious stories, or the pumped-up or toned-down versions of the real stories – if that fits the purpose better.)

Haunted isn’t only interesting because of these questions, though. The stories told by the characters are also good and well-told. They are also very dark and frightening, they are full of tension, and they are deeply unsettling and depressing. Also – their effect doesn’t wither with re-reading. I read this book twice so far, and the second reading was just as enjoyable as the first one. In fact, I found some stories somewhat ridiculous the first time around (for example, „Civil Twilight”), but they filled me with dread and anxiety upon re-reading.

Besides all this, Haunted features Palahniuk’s trademark critical attitude and his smart and merciless remarks about consumer society. I vastly prefer Haunted to some of his other work, though, because here all the cutting observations are sprinkled moderately throughout the stories, and not hammered into my face by a single, perhaps too directly critical narrator.

This is a good, very consciously created and very enjoyable book. It’s a book that doesn’t need the kind of cheap advertising I often read about it (for example, about the number of people who fainted during Palahniuk’s public reading of one of the stories, „Guts”) because it can create its effect on its own. And I’m also pretty sure it’s not only memorable because of the extremely graphic and brutal stories it contains – it goes deeper than mere brutality.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

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Saying that Shirley Jackson’s classic horror story is eerie and deeply terrifying doesn’t even come close to describing the real effect of this novel. This novel is so numbing that its chill goes right to the depth of the heart – even if The Haunting of Hill House is not a traditional haunted house-story: it’s more about examining what’s inside the mind and what’s outside, in the so-called reality, and about the way the inside of the mind influences the way the outside world is experienced, and vice versa.

At the beginning of story, we meet Dr. Montague, a determined and naive man, who is fascinated by haunted houses, and wants to spend time exploring them scientifically. Dr. Montague finds the ideal candidate for his explorations in Hill House. Hill House is not exactly an inviting house, the neighbors all talk and think about it with feelings of unease, and it’s been mostly uninhabited in the 80 years that’s passed since its construction because everyone who moved there soon moved out again, feeling that Hill House is just not a place to live in. Naturally, the house has a bit of a dark past, too – but it’s clear from the very first page that Hill House isn’t evil or haunted – contrary to an average haunted house – because people died or dark deeds were done there. No – Hill House was born evil, and it brought misfortune to everyone who had anything to do with its construction or later history.

But Dr. Montague isn’t put off by the bad reputation of the house, he recruits a couple of people and moves in to Hill House with them, with the intention to observe and document anything that might happen. The members of his group: Theodora, a shallow, cute, manipulative young girl; Luke, a relative of the owner of Hill House, a suave, unscrupulous man; and Eleanor, a single woman in her thirties, who spent her youth taking care of her ailing mother, and now, being freed from her decade-long duty, she has no idea how to interact with people because she’s never known anyone and she’s never been wanted by anyone anywhere.

These four people move in to Hill House, and from that moment on they are all exposed to the subversive, mind-corrupting atmosphere of the house, and they start to experience uncanny phenomena, too: doors and windows left wide open close on their own; there’s a spot near the door of the children’s room where the air is strangely cold; and the view from the windows is not the view that should be visible according to the laws of physics.

And this is terrifying enough, but it’s not the main point – the main question is what goes on inside the minds of characters, and what kind of relationships and power/mind games develop among them: how Eleanor, lonely and awkward, tries to win the affection of the others; how Theodora, easy-going and careless, plays with everyone’s emotions; how Dr. Montague tries to create and maintain order and sanity among his guests; and how Luke, ever the womanizer, tries to seduce both women at the same time.

The ominous events scattered here and there among all the psychological battles of the characters are not central and especially: not surprising – because everyone already takes it for granted that something will happen in Hill House. And indeed: the atmosphere of Hill House is extremely oppressive and menacing, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if Hill House provided a home to a score of ghosts – but a couple of questions do arise: do the mysterious, inexplicable events happen because the guests are attuned to them? Or do they happen because Hill House is truly evil? Does anything supernatural happen at all? Is it perhaps all just collective paranoia? Or is it that one of the four characters is just playing a cruel game or joke on the others? And if so – who is the master of the game, who is the joker?

I don’t wish to take away the – dark and helluva cold – pleasure of answering these questions during reading, so I won’t go into more details – that’s for sure that Shirley Jackson provides the reader with plenty to think about, while subtly and precisely describing what a – supposedly – haunted house does (can do) to the human mind. And in the end this is much more than a simple-scary horror – this is an impressive, well thought-out and well (what’s more: beautifully) written ghost/insanity story, one which leaves you wondering whether the things that do happen are brought about by a real ghost, or by the lunacy of the characters.

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

Recently I came across the title of this novel in several different places all over the web, and in these cases, though I’m not a particularly mystical person believing in signs, I tend to think that perhaps these coincidences happen for a reason, and I should take a closer look at the book in question. This I promptly did. I checked what this novel was about, became enthusiastic and ordered it almost immediately. As this is a very complex novel both in terms of content and structure, this blog entry will be rather long and will contain spoilers.

House of Leaves is a multi-layered novel. The narrator of the outer story is Johnny Truant, an apprentice to a tattoo artist, living in Los Angeles. When he’s not working, he spends his time doing drugs and chasing women with his friend Lude. In Lude’s apartment building lives a mysterious old man called Zampanò who dies one day and leaves behind a huge trunk full of papers. The trunk somehow ends up at Johnny’s place, and initially Johnny disregards its contents. Soon, however, he starts to read parts of the text written on the pieces of papers, and it’s not long before he begins to realize the connections among the bits and pieces. From here it’s only a short step for Johnny to become completely obsessed with Zampanò’s text, and he ends up compiling the material and creating the novel titled The Navidson Record. He also adds his own, highly personal notes to those written by Zampanò himself, and completes the book with the story of his own obsession with the novel.

To make matters even more complicated, The Navidson Record itself is not a regular, linear, story-telling kind of book either. The Navidson Record tells the story of a Pulitzer-prize winning photojournalist, Will Navidson who moves with his family to a nice old house somewhere in the Virginia countryside, but soon it turns out that their cozy new home is in fact an immense, constantly changing, uniformly dark and cold labyrinth. Navidson, a man never shying away from dangerous situations, is intrigued, and organizes several expeditions to find out more about the labyrinth of his house. The events of these expeditions are covered by ample video footage, the characters themselves keep their own video journals, and photos are also taken of everything important. All these videos and photos are then organized and edited to form a movie called The Navidson Record. And the novel called The Navidson Record is as much about the story of the Navidson family as about the making of the movie and about the way the movie was received and interpreted by different audiences.

I wrote about Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow earlier (this post is not available in English yet) that it was the first book I’d ever read which wasn’t only telling a story about something, but in a way became the same as its material, the reality it depicted. Now I’ve come across another such novel: House of Leaves. And in a sense this novel goes even further than Gravity’s Rainbow. Because apart from the fact that the novel itself is like a labyrinth (or more precisely: it’s not like a labyrinth, it is a labyrinth), it steps out of itself and literally eats itself into the reader’s mind, knows in advance every thought of the reader, and includes all possible reactions to the novel, and every possible interpretation a reader might come up with.

A single example would suffice here. One chapter deals extensively with different labyrinths and with the architectural characteristics (or rather the lack of any distinct characteristics) of the Navidson house. This chapter is in itself already a labyrinth. One footnote leads to another, which in turn leads to yet another, but after working yourself diligently through all the footnotes, you won’t see any clearer, as the footnotes don’t tell you about what the house is like, but about what it’s not like. It also happens that more references lead to the same footnote, and the chapter also contains parts of texts which are mirrored or in other ways distorted, so by the time I carefully digested the unbelievable amount of information contained in the footnotes, I could hardly recall where I started from. And even though the chapter isn’t particularly long, it took me almost three hours to read it, and I could hardly wait to read a more linear, more text-like text.

As it turned out, Johnny, the outer narrator (and first reader and compiler) of the story reacted to this chapter in the same way. In one of his footnotes in the next chapter, he describes the same frustration I felt, and voices the same desire to read something which doesn’t hurt the eye and the mind as much as the previous chapter. Our wish does come true: the next chapter is the exact opposite of the „labyrinth chapter”: the pages usually contain only a couple of lines of easily readable text, there are hardly any footnotes, and most of the paper is soothingly blank.

However, two things are worth mentioning. One is that what little text does appear in the otherwise blank pages is most emphatically not soothing, and considering some of the events in this chapter, the labyrinthine text of the previous one sometimes almost seems like a nice and easy read. The other, even more disturbing thing is the realization that the reader I so readily identify with and whose emotions while reading The Navidson Record I so strongly share is no other than Johnny Truant, who starts out in his introduction to the book with the description of how this novel changed his life for the worse, and who suffers from increasingly serious mental disorders as he progresses with the compilation and reading of the story.

Reading House of Leaves is like doing an investigation (despite the fact that this is definitely not a detective novel). I don’t read too much crime fiction, but when I start reading a crime novel, I never strain myself too much (or at all) to come up with the solution on my own as I know that I’m not a talented investigator, so usually I just let go and let the story entertain me. House of Leaves, however, doesn’t let me lean back and feel good. It involves me and forces me to identify with the characters from the very first page, and as I’m already Johnny (and Will Navidson and Karen Green as well, for that matter) I cannot simply sit back and wait passively in the hope that perhaps the others will go ahead and solve the mysteries, I must try my best and do everything I can from the „outside” as a reader. (As if there were such a place as the outside in this novel.) Therefore I read many especially complicated passages two or three times in a row, and read even those footnotes with a relentless (manic) faith that contained nothing more than a list of several hundred architects, buildings or movies, hoping that sooner or later I will find a sign which could be the key to the whole story.

Reading House of Leaves is also similar to reading a detective novel in the sense that the novel is full of signs which entice me to follow them; moreover, the novel constantly forces me into making uncomfortable decisions, and it never turns out whether I made the right decisions. For instance, somewhere towards the beginning of the novel, in a footnote about one of Johnny’s footnote the (entirely fictional) editors give us a piece of advice, saying that if the reader wishes to follow their own instincts she can go ahead with reading the main story, however, if she feels that knowing more about Johnny’s background might help her in the interpretation of the story, then she can jump ahead to the appendix and read a collection of letters Johnny received from his institutionalized mother. I turned to the appendix but when I saw that the letters took up 60 pages, I decided to leave them to the end, partly because I wanted to follow my instincts, and partly because I was more interested in Navidson’s story than in Johnny’s (as I am Johnny, the reader, so I surely know enough about myself – at least this is what I thought).

In the end I read the letters in the appendix of course, but now I have no way of knowing in what ways my reading experience would have been different if I had read them at the time when the footnote I mentioned directed me to them. One thing is certain: if I had read the letters then (in time?), I would have received an explanation for a sign appearing only once in the novel, a sign I noticed but couldn’t interpret without knowing the contents of the letters. If I had known then, before reaching the 100th page of the novel what this particular sign (might have) stood for, I’m sure I would have reached very different conclusions as to the whole novel in general, and the identity of the characters in particular. But, again, there’s no way of knowing which of these would have been the „correct” reading method, and I tend to think there would have been no single correct method at all. As Johnny writes in the Introduction:

See, the irony is it makes no difference that the documentary at the heart of this book is fiction. Zampanò knew from the get go that what’s real or isn’t real doesn’t matter here. The consequences are the same.
I can suddenly imagine the cracked voice I never heard. Lips barely creasing into a smile. Eyes pinned on darkness:
„Irony? Irony can never be more than our personal Maginot Line; the drawing of it, for the most part, purely arbitrary.”
(Pantheon Books, New York, 2000, p. xx)

And indeed. It wouldn’t have made any difference if, being aware of the contents of the letters, I had interpreted several parts of the novel differently, or if I had taken the whole novel to be ironic, as I’m sure that House of Leaves still would have made a huge impression on me, since for a novel to have effect it doesn’t matter at all whether something in the book is real or (doubly) fictional, or whether something is to be taken literally or ironically.

By the way, if you happen to have the impression that House of Leaves is not an easy read, you are right. Following the multiply embedded story-lines, the footnotes which sometimes meander through several pages, and the visual and typographical oddities is at times not at all easy, in fact, reading this book is often a truly frustrating task which requires considerable effort on the reader’s part. On the other hand, however, House of Leaves is such a fascinating read, engaging my attention from the very first page, and never letting it go until the very end, that I didn’t for a moment regret all the time and energy I needed to invest into this novel.

(Now I paused for a second and tried to decide whether my last two lines were contradictory or not, and I came to the conclusion that they weren’t. Why couldn’t a novel be difficult to read and fascinating, frustrating and stunning at the same time? Why couldn’t it force me to face myself and my own reality, and at the same time make me forget myself and enable me to get truly lost in a fictional world? House of Leaves is such a novel.)

But House of Leaves isn’t just a terrific, cleverly constructed novel which makes utmost use of such postmodern literary techniques as fragmenting the story and jumbling the chronology of events. It is a beautifully written, unspeakably heartbreaking and unsettling book as well. I don’t know if I make you more curious about the book, or if I totally discourage you with this, but House of Leaves was one of those two books last year which didn’t simply brought me close to tears, but could actually make me cry. More than once.

Which is all the more surprising for me as it rarely (virtually never) happens that a novel in which the form, the structure and the way the story is told are as important as the story itself can induce such emotions in me. I love postmodern literature, and I can get really enthusiastic about a clever, stylistically, structurally or narratologically unique novel, and I can merrily ignore the story itself, but this is simply not the kind of literature that could break my heart. House of Leaves is as clever and postmodern as it comes – and still manages to break my heart. This is the kind of book it is. It resolves all, seemingly inherent contradictions; it withstands all easy, ready-made interpretations; and it proves on its own example that two, apparently mutually exclusive characteristics can be equally true at the same time.