Sunday, 7 April 2013

Week Fourteen - Jeanette

 House Of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski (2000)
Recommended by Geoff

Watch this. It’s the first installment of Marble Hornets.

Found footage and ‘fakelore’ is nothing new in horror films: from Cannibal Holocaust to REC, badly popping, disordered and scratched visuals tell ambiguous stories of missing protagonists. What Marble Hornets did differently, however, was to spin out the story over months, years (it’s still going); releasing tiny fragments on the internet, often of footage that made no stand-alone or even contextual sense. Crucially and inventively, Marble Hornets utilised a pre-existing myth – of the ‘Slenderman’ – that was an internet-created sensation in itself.

I had thought Marble Hornets was influenced by the usual found footage canon. I now think it is primarily indebted to House Of Leaves and the film that book is about, The Navidson Record.

The author of House Of Leaves – not, in fact, Danielewski, but a mysterious (and deceased) man, Zampanò – spent years consumed by The Navidson Record. He has clearly watched the film an unhealthy number of times, studied it frame by frame, read all of the copious amounts of academic writing on it, and dedicated every available millimetre of his mental space to its meaning. On one level, House Of Leaves is the document of one man’s obsession.

The Navidson Record depicts the rural Virginia house of Will Navidson, photojournalist, and Karen Green, former model. In summer 1990, the two, along with their children, go to a wedding in Seattle. When they return, something has changed. Their house defies the laws of physics and sprouts new closets, rooms, corridors, halls – all the while looking exactly the same from the outside. The film, originally passed around as a series of shorts before being pulled together for theatrical release, is about Will Navidson exploring his new (and as it turns out, rather violent and vindictive) internal property space.                       

It sounds like a good film, up my street in a The Stone Tape-meets-Ring kind of way, but why should Zampanò write this book, full of minutely-detailed criticism on it? And why should Geoff recommend it to me? Let us deal with the latter first.

I’ve known Geoff for a good few years; he’s another Sheffield bud of mine. In the early days of our friendship he did me a great service (although the general public may not agree) – he helped me fall for Twitter. While I was all ‘this is a load of shite, what on earth do people get out of it?’, he convinced me it was worth a decent stab, gave me hints on how to use it properly, and sent me a big list of people to follow. I’ve been an addict ever since. If you ‘do’ Twitter, Geoff’s here, and he’s ace.

Like many of my favourite people, he’s big into music. Our tastes have a few overlap points – he recently loaned me the Crass back catalogue, which hit the spot, I can tell you – but often they’re amusingly disparate. A conversation a couple of weeks back:

‘I’m going to see Ghost soon,’ said Geoff.
‘Wow! I had no idea they were touring at the moment. Are there tickets left? Can I come?’
‘You like Ghost?’
‘Yeah, love them!’

I meant this Ghost:

He meant this Ghost:

What we do have in common music-wise, however, is a soft spot for lovely packaging. And House Of Leaves, too – subtitled ‘The Remastered Full-Color Edition’ – is a thing of beauty. It is a huge hardback, with delicious creamy pages, illustrations, and awash with fonts (plus every incidence of the word ‘house’ is coloured blue)… simply exquisite.

So why should a work of film criticism be so lavish? And why did this movie grip Zampanò so? After all, I used to watch Rosemary’s Baby every day, but I still found time to go to work and enjoy stable mental health. Zampanò considers.

In what remains the most controversial aspect of The Haven-Slocum Theory, the concluding paragraphs claim that people not even directly associated with the events on Ash Tree Lane have been affected. […] An even greater number of people dwelling on The Navidson Record have shown an increase in obsessiveness, insomnia, and incoherence.

By this point you may be thinking, ‘why haven’t I heard of this film?’

Don’t worry about your cultural capital. The Navidson Record doesn’t exist. Or does it?

If you’re my kind of age and you studied English Literature at university, you almost certainly covered ‘theories of the text’: semiotics, ideological state apparatuses, death of the author, poststructuralism etc etc etc. If you’ve ever heard the word ‘panoptican’, well hello there, fellow traveller. Mark Z. Danielewski, through the mind-melting fictive structure that is House Of Leaves, creates layers upon layers of possible authenticity: his own, Navidson, Zampanò, Johnny Truant (who finds and annotates Zampanò’s manuscript) and the shadowy, impassive Editors who occasionally interject, too. He often mocks the plethora of tenuous hypotheses that ‘texts’ are forced through.

Though not the first to make the comparison, Eta Ruccalla’s treatment of Will & Tom as contemporary Esau & Jacob has become the academic standard. […] Incredible as it may seem, Ruccalla’s nine-hundred page book is not one page too long.

Also postmodernist is the look of the book itself. When Zampanò is considering the architectural and physical make-up of the impossible labyrinthine house, the page looks like this:

And when Will Navidson is exploring his supernatural corridors, and the space is shrinking around him, the page looks like this:

By no means is this only authorial clever-cleverness (although there’s definitely a whiff of it). There’s a truly blood-chilling moment when Danielweski brilliantly uses this spatial awareness of text and blank page to illustrate how cut-off Navidson actually is. There is no way this could have been conveyed so effectively through words alone.

House Of Leaves explicitly uses semiotic theory to bring together the style of past structural literary satire – works like Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and Gogol’s ‘Diary Of A Madman’ – with a post-internet approach to how myths are created and fuelled. The book also mirrors a modern flitting mind; the narratives switching via footnotes and appendices and text body reflects the current norm of multi-tasking rather than exclusive devotion.

All this, and still it’s a terrific (and traditional) deep psychological horror story written with clarity and terror. This book, like the Navidson house, is unique. Impossibly, yet possibly, unique.[1]

[1] So says Jeanette Leech’s ‘House Of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski (2000): Recommended by Geoff’ A Tale Of Two Readers, April 2013, at