‘This is not for you.’
These five words begin Mark Z. Danielewski’s singular House of Leaves. What follows is a gripping, challenging, sometimes baffling but never predictable novel about a haunted house a quarter of an inch bigger on the inside than the outside, and which contains a labyrinth powerful enough to extend beyond the page, and ensnare even the reader.
Danielewski uses all the skills of the typesetter’s art to create a maze of text, footnote, endnote and margin. You jump from one to the next, only to find you have reached a dead-end, and have to go back to the beginning. But just where is the beginning? I re-read this chapter a day or two ago, and once again wished I had five extra fingers to help keep my place.
I bought House of Leaves when it came out in 2000, and whilst I’ve not yet read any of Danielewski’s later work (Only Revolutions was published in 2006, with a limited edition of The Fifty Year Sword following it in 2012), his first book has always been for me an exemplar of what the furthest limits of the novel can achieve. That’s not to say that I always enjoyed House of Leaves; but it stayed with me in a way that few other books have. In particular, there’s one arresting image towards the end, which I quote at some length in another post (On the Burning of Books), and which you might like to check out if I’ve piqued your interest.
The power that House of Leaves has exerted over me meant that I jumped at the chance to see Mark Danielewski live. He was on his first UK tour to promote the publication of a mass-market edition of The Fifty Year Sword, and even though it involved a two-hour post-work drive from Birmingham to Liverpool, I knew I had to be there.
Unfortunately, rush hour traffic meant that I arrived late, missing Danielewski’s reading from The Fifty Year Sword (although I did console myself by buying a copy at the end of the evening). But his interview with David Hering (from Liverpool University) and subsequent Q&A with the audience made up for it. Danielewski has an engaging American drawl, and his answers came across as considered and carefully thought out. This was in accord with the time he spent on his novels, which Danielewski described as ‘a long process… House of Leaves – 10 years, Only Revolutions – 7 years, The Familiar going on 8 years.’
Depth is clearly important to Danielewski, more so than being prolific – ‘as much as I’m driven to publish, it’s not always necessary to publish.’ Rather, it’s an exercise in creating an immersive experience for the reader. ‘I take as much meaning as I can and I compress it into this,’ Danielewski said at one point, indicating a copy of The Fifty Year Sword. ‘It may not serve you in any way, but the only thing I dream about doing is in imparting something to the reader that says “this is 10 years, this resonates with meaning, so there might be something that’s worth my time.” ‘
My favourite question of the evening was deceptively simple – what scares you? Danielewski’s answer was initially self-deprecating – ‘It’s too long a list. Easier to ask what doesn’t scare me’ – before moving into more sombre territory: ‘What scares me is that I was given this opportunity to rise out of the mud, and look around, and that I didn’t look around at what the world was.’ This was followed by a question about Danielewski’s interest in fear – despite not being a genre author, he acknowledged that ‘all my books are somehow invested in horror.’ There was then some discussion of the form this fear takes in House of Leaves. ‘When you see those absences,’ said Danielewski, ‘you see what you were lucky enough to hold on to.’
Following on from the interrogation, there was the cheerful and chatty queue to have newly purchased copies of The Fifty Year Sword (and not so new copies of House of Leaves) signed. When it was my turn I found Danielewski to be charming, despite the ‘two, three hour journey from Manchester’ he’d made earlier that day. The next evening, he was due at another author event in London, before jetting off to Spain for the release of House of Leaves. ‘That’s the way to visit Britain,’ he said. ‘What, fast?’ I asked. ‘Sure, otherwise I might be tempted to stay.’
It was such a thrill to meet Mark Danielewski in person, and have him sign my books. His kind dedication in my copy of House of Leaves had a magical effect, negating the opening warning that I opened this post with. But despite Danielewski’s spell, I’ve no doubt that it will remain a book that continues to scare me – one of the many reasons why it remains such a thrill to read.