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Safe as Houses

Two horror novels prove you don't want to go home again

by Dale Bailey

There's a passage midway through chapter one of Mark Z. Danielewski's much-lauded House of Leaves (Random House, $19.95) when you think he's actually going to pull off the literary equivalent of an unassisted triple play; that is, live up to his hype and write a novel that appeals equally to aficionados of Stephen King and James Joyce. The passage describes a snippet of underground cinema-verité depicting a man apparently lost in an endless labyrinth. "There's something here," he informs the camera in a shaky voice. "It's stalking me." The good news is, this is a genuinely creepy moment. The bad news is that it's the best such moment in the novel—and the book still has some 704 pages to go.

That's right, 704 pages.

Whatever else House of Leaves may be, there can be little argument that it's one hefty tome. The story gets underway when Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Will Navidson moves into a Virginia farmhouse. Intending to produce a warm and fuzzy family documentary there, Navidson instead finds himself getting footage of a Blair Witch-style horror. It begins when his cozy house turns out to be bigger inside than out. Lots bigger. It contains an endless labyrinth of ever-changing tunnels and galleries, including a central staircase that winds literally miles into the earth.

Alas, we never view these events directly. The novel's main narrative is an academic study of Navidson's documentary written by Zampon˜, a blind eccentric who died in mysterious circumstances. Zampon˜'s manuscript is in turn discovered and edited by an L.A. street tough named Johnny Truant. Between prolix accounts of his drug-addled binges and sexual misadventures, Johnny describes his slowly escalating sense that he too is haunted—stalked by a supernatural agency with obscure connections to both Zampon˜ and the eponymous house.

The entire narrative comes complete with highbrow literary allusions, footnotes, appendices (including poems, collages, quotations, and 55 long pages of letters from Truant's crazy mother), multi-color printing and photo-plates, and a bewildering array of typographical tricks (including some sections you'll need a mirror to read). The post-modern trickery dazzles at first glance, but somewhere along about page 50 or so—say midway through Zampon˜'s torturous analysis of the etymology and significance of the word "echo"—one begins to suspect the disheartening truth: House of Leaves is all clever surface and hollow at the core. The nature of the labyrinth remains as inexplicable on page 709 as it was on page 1. The same can be said of Zampon˜'s bizarre demise and Johnny Truant's psychological meltdown. While it's easy to imagine the arguments apologists might make in Danielewski's defense—a little academic blather about the conditional nature of post-Enlightenment knowledge ought to do it—the novel finally and infuriatingly dissolves into fatal ambiguity.

Of course, when well-handled, ambiguity can be both artful and rewarding. In Julian's House (New American Library, $6.99), Judith Hawkes takes an utterly conventional situation—psychic investigators in a reputedly haunted house—and transforms it through a kind of literary alchemy into a genuinely unsettling read. The psychic investigators in question are Sally and David Curtiss, married less than a year when they move into the Gilfoy house, somewhere in western Massachusetts. Unlike House of Leaves, which stumbles in its orchestration of multiple narratives, Julian's House artfully intertwines three distinct plot lines: the slow disintegration of the Curtiss marriage; the developing friendship between Sally and Colin Robinson, the elderly town librarian; and the gradual disclosure of the Gilfoy house's troubling past.

Hawkes' lyrical prose and telling eye for character make the leisurely integration of these plot lines all the more disturbing. By the time we begin to sense the parallels between the Gilfoy house's malign history and its troubled present, Hawkes has so expertly established the delicate nuances of each distinct personality that we find ourselves in very much the same situation as her protagonists: unable to tell just where the hauntings leave off and their lives begin. This subtle—and wholly intentional—ambiguity informs the final third of the novel with a genuine sense of dread.

For all the literary pyrotechnics deployed in House of Leaves, Danielewski never quite achieves the same disquieting frisson. Danielewski is clearly talented and it's hard not to admire the erudition and effort that must have gone into the novel's composition (reportedly a 10-year undertaking). Reading the book itself, however, is a bit like spending a weekend in the company of a showy and precocious 7-year-old: In the end, it's a relief to get away and spend some time in adult company.
 

June 22, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 25
© 2000 Metro Pulse