(TW death, suicidal ideation)
I read House of Leaves when I was seventeen years old and going through the worst depression of my life. I was already a depressive kid (as aspiring writers generally are), but then I witnessed the death of my grandfather. Watching the moment-to-moment transition from life into death was the most existential and traumatic thing I’d ever experienced.
I had a nervous breakdown. We moved into my grandparents’ house to be together as a family during this difficult time, and I was relegated to my grandfather’s old bedroom.
It was surreal, sleeping in the bed he slept in, waking up to the view he woke up to every day. There was a dead ladybug on the wall. I stared at that thing for hours. Did he stare at it, too? Did he know it was there? Did he know he was dying?
I questioned everything. I couldn’t reconcile my Catholic upbringing with the casual horror I’d witnessed. What was the purpose of life when all of us end up in the same place? The romantic ghost stories of a light and energy and lingering presence were all wrong. I didn’t see any of that. I saw a living human morph into an inanimate object. I imagined what everyone would look like as corpses. I imagined what my corpse would look like. Death is the great equalizer of individuals and purpose.
I loved driving. For a teenager in suburbia hell, driving is freedom. Driving is control. I would drive the perfect grid of my hometown and listen to loud music for as long as I could until I knew I had to turn around and go back home, back to my grieving family, back to that room.
The whole time I drove those wooded streets, I fantasized about swerving into a tree. Never go home again. Be done with this. We’re all going to die anyway.
That’s the state of mind I was in when I read House of Leaves.
It’s very difficult to summarize a book that laughs in the face of structure and form, but for those who haven’t read it, I’ll do my best. (For a more thorough synopsis, I invite you to the Wikipedia page.)
A man under the alias of Johnny Truant moves into the apartment of a friend’s recently deceased neighbor, an academic known only as Zampanó. While in the apartment, Johnny discovers Zampanó’s unfinished manuscript, a nonfiction analysis of The Navidson Record.
The Navidson Record is a documentary created by photojournalist William Navidson. William has just moved into a house on Ash Tree Lane, and while all is normal at first, a door appears. Then another door. Then a long, cold, dark hallway that should extend into the front yard but inexplicably does not. At the end of the hallway is a maze. In the maze is a large room with a spiral staircase that descends endlessly into total darkness. And there’s something alive in there, too.
To convey the book’s structure, I rely on Wikipedia’s description:
“It contains copious footnotes, many of which contain footnotes themselves, including references to fictional books, films or articles. In contrast, some pages contain only a few words or lines of text, arranged in strange ways to mirror the events in the story, often creating both an agoraphobic and a claustrophobic effect. At points, the book must be rotated to be read. The novel is also distinctive for its multiple narrators, who interact with each other in elaborate and disorienting ways.”
I read this book sitting in my dead grandfather’s bed in the dark when everyone else was asleep. I could hear the creature in the labyrinth, snarling and skittering. I mourned Johnny’s mother, cracked and abandoned, left to wander the fertile fields of her nightmares.
I related especially to Johnny. Troubled. Reconciling. Johnny lived in the domicile of a dead man, and I did, too. We walked the staircase into the bottomless dark together with nothing to say except, “I get it.”
Eventually, I recovered. In my nihilistic, atheistic revelation, I decided if life is pointless, might as well enjoy it, right? (A very Johnny mindset, I realize now.) That thought truly saved me.
I also marveled at the way the book was written. House of Leaves dared to experiment with the form in a way I’d never experienced . I’d never heard of ergodic literature before. It excited me. It opened my eyes to what was possible with nothing but words and paper.
I decided to create. If we’re all gonna die one day, I might as well create, because creating is the one thing I know I must do.
I took a pottery class that year. We had to make a box. I, the ever-expressive artist, created purgatory. The interior of the box is either packed away somewhere or broken, but I painstakingly sculpted a small spiral staircase for the center. On either side, I created a chair and a trap door.
You can go up or down, or you can sit and think about it for a while. Purgatory.
These images are the lid to the box. The poem serves as the ceiling to purgatory. The outer edges complete the question I asked myself time and time again while driving those perfectly straight lines — You got a death wish, Truant?
I keep it with me, perhaps because I’m vain, but more likely because it’s a reminder of the darkness that I survived.
Little solace comes to those who grieve
when thoughts keep
and walls keep
and this great blue world of ours
seems a house of leaves
moments before the wind
I haven’t read House of Leaves since, primarily I think because I’ve been scared to go back there. I’ve lived through even more darkness, unfortunately, as we all do. I’m back in purgatory, but I’m a bit stronger now. I’m turning thirty this year. I’m writing, watching, and reading horror.
Mark Z. Danielewski, the author, contends that this book isn’t a horror story but a love story. Perhaps I’m too unenlightened for that idea, because what I got from this was the beauty of horror, the awe-inspiring depths of the human soul.
Grief, madness, death — casual horror we all must confront in this earthly existence, and how do we deal with that? How have we expressed these specters through the ages, and why have we made certain archetypal choices to express them? Why a labyrinth? Why a minotaur? Why pomegranates? Why underworld vs. overworld? Why cold and dark?
More importantly, if this is our fate, how do we make meaning out of our infinitesimal lives?
I don’t know. Maybe it’s time I walk that staircase again.