Weekly Wire
NewCityNet Po-Mo Horrors

By Nathan Matteson

APRIL 10, 2000: 

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski (Pantheon), $40, 720 pages

I was fully aware that it would only be a short while before "The Blair Witch Project" would spawn a whole other strategy of filmmaking; little did I realize, however, that its effects would travel so quickly through the realm of literary fiction.

Mark Z. Danielewski's debut novel, "House of Leaves," exists somewhere on the cusp between your average banal horror writing and typical quasi-intellectual "post-modern" fiction -- and oddly enough (or not), it's centered around a fictional documentary film. Johnny Truant, whose existence is related primarily through footnotes and bothersome font changes, has taken on the task of compiling and publishing the "critical" writings of some crazy, blind and dead fella. These writings concern a non-existent (both within the novel and, of course, within the real world) film by world-renowned photojournalist Will Navidson, which chronicles Navidson's new home and its power to grow "inside" (doors, hallways, antechambers, never-ending spiral stairways) while retaining its original dimension on the "outside."

Of course, the new found interiors are inhabited by the growl of a never-seen beast, and the horror -- along with the growth of mysterious rooms -- is entirely psychological. Sound familiar? Luckily, Danielewski punctuates the eventually mind-numbing film narrative and its criticism with the aforementioned commentary of Mr. Truant. In these instances we're allowed a bit of respite from the pathetic world of this L.A. loser whose life is destroyed by the writings he's found himself heir to.

The author's technical prowess in assembling the multitude of voices and narrators into a variegated story is impressive. By the same token, however, the consequent layering of myriad and allegorical story lines comes across like boring old schoolboy play. And while the typesetting budget must be equally impressive, the proliferation of font changes, size changes, spacing changes, baseline shifts (ad nauseum) adds up to a reading nightmare without offering any assistance to the nightmares within the narrative. Despite the problems, Danielewski ends up dealing with the age-old theme of "the enemy within" in an extremely current way. At the risk of befouling Conrad, perhaps a better title would've been "House of Blair's Heart of Darkness."

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