Archive for the ‘Gothic’ Category

Book #111: House of Leaves

Holy. Shit. Holy shit. Holy shit. HOLY SHIT.

Holyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshit.

House of Leaves. I…wow. Mark Z. Danielewski is a crazy motherfucker. House of Leaves is unlike anything I’ve ever read. I’m not sure there’s another book like it anywhere. Not only is the story (or stories, I should say) compelling and terrifying, the actual, physical experience of reading the book is also part of reading it.

The book is presented as an analytical textbook about an indie film that has gathered a cult following. The film – “The Navidson Record” – is a found-footage horror story about mysterious doors that open in famous photographer Will Navidson’s house. When a mysterious labyrinth with moving walls, a growling beast, and huge, cavernous rooms is revealed to exist inside the house, Navidson enlists a team of explorers, as well as his brother and some friends, to explore and try to get to the bottom of what is happening in his house. Running through the narrative is the strain that the cavern and its exploration has on Navidson’s relationship with his wife. It’s a little bit like the Paranormal Activity films, I’d imagine. Except that as things are revealed – through footnotes and appendices and interviews – you become unsure whether or not the film is fact or fiction.

That’s just the story of The Navidson Record. The text of the book itself is complied by tattoo parlor employee and slacker Johnny Truant. When Truant and his friend enter a dead man’s apartment, they find hundreds of pages worth of records and notes on the film that Truant feels compelled to organize into the book – House of Leaves. As Truant delves into Zampanó’s – the dead man’s – work, he finds himself drawn into a world where he questions his sanity and is forced to confront darkness in his past – and present. Truant’s story is told through lengthy footnotes throughout the actual “textbook.”

The book itself, like I said, is as much a part of the reading experience as the story it contains. The book is riddled with footnotes and symbols. Sometimes the text reads in more than one direction so you’re turning the book sideways and upside down and even moving it in a spiral to read it. Sometimes text runs along the top of the page, or the bottom of the page, or even diagonally across the page. Footnotes have footnotes, sometimes they refer you to appendices or back to previous footnotes. Sometimes you have to hunt for footnotes that aren’t where they should be. Labyrinths are key in the story, and Danielewski turned the physical book containing the story into a labyrinth. It’s completely insane.

More than that, the book is riddled with codes and secret meanings. Certain words are different colors. The word house is always printed in blue, for example. If you go online and seek out message boards you’ll find all kinds of crazy theories and things people have found in the book. There’s a coded letter to decipher, and then there’s a code within the code. There are ciphers. There’s a footnote listing famous architects and artists and if you take the first letter of all the last names, there’s a message. Other times there are codes, but you wouldn’t know it unless you really devoted yourself to decoding things, because the first few letters will be gibberish and then suddenly there are words.

The think about reading a book like this is that once you figure out that there are meanings behind the text, everything seems intentional. Why was this word misspelled? Why is this word a different font from the other? This word is missing letters, do the missing letters spell something? Why is this footnote in italics while this one is in bold? There’s even a bar of music printed in the book. Have you ever tried to seek out a piano so you can play music that you found printed in a novel you’re reading? I have. I felt insane. That book can drive you crazy, if you let it.

Let me tell you a little story about my experience reading House of Leaves. It was late. I wanted to go to bed, but I only had 30 pages until the end of a chapter. Finishing them would get me to bed a bit later than I wanted, but nothing major. But then a footnote led me to another footnote, which led me to an appendix with around 100 pages of letters. One of the letters was written in code, so I had to figure it out. There was a code within that code, and then I noticed another appendix. That appendix showed me that weird symbols connected to certain footnotes had meanings, so I had to go back and connect the meanings with the footnotes. The next thing I knew, it was 3 hours later and I still had 26 pages before the end of the chapter.

House of Leaves was an absolutely insane experience to read. It’s one of those books that could really fuck you up without all the unique footnotes and codes. Those extra elements only serve to get the book in your head a even more. It’s a horror story and a love story and the order you read the appendices and whether or not you choose to pay attention to the extra things like codes or footnotes can completely change your reading.

It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It changed my idea of what books can be and what they can do. I think a lot about the connection between e-books and physical books, and House of Leaves definitely added to that. Reading that book on a Kindle would not be the same. You would lose so much of the physical experience of reading the book and flipping forward and backward in search of footnotes and codes. You’d lose the sense of space when Danielewski plays with the spacing of text on the page if you were looking at it on a small screen.

Mind-fucking plot and insanity-inducing codes aside, House of Leaves definitely makes a case for physical books. The physical book is as much a character as Navidson, Truant, Zampanó, and the House. The act of reading is an experience. It even adds something to the plot, instead of just feeling gimmicky.

If you’re up for a crazy experience, I’d totally recommend House of Leaves. It’s completely nuts.

And, if you know of another book like it, please let me know. Going back to reading books with straightforward plots and nothing to decode and no mysteries to solve is a bit like going back to driving an automatic after you’ve been driving a stick shift. There’s just not as much to do.

Rating: *****
Up Next: Goodbye To Berlin 

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Book #97: The Pit and the Pendulum

I mentioned before that I always think of Edgar Allan Poe as a poet, even though I’ve read many of his short stories and the only poem of his that I’ve read is “The Raven.” I really like Poe’s short stories, though. In college some friends and I started a Dead Poets Society, and we’d meet around campus and read poems and stories by candle light. For Halloween, we snuck into the English department, on the top floor of Main, and read a lot of Edgar Allan Poe by flashlight. It was creepy and super, super fun.

I’m actually a little disappointed, because my absolute favorite Poe story is A Cask of Amontillado, and it’s not on the list. I might have to read it anyway. Actually, none of my favorites are on there. Maybe when it’s closer to Halloween I’ll read a few of them.

Anyway, to actually focus on The Pit and the Pendulum, which I’d never read before. Let’s get this one-liner out of the way: I knew there were allusions to Hell in this story, but I wasn’t expecting the Spanish Inquisition. Truly.

This story was pretty scary. I read it on my lunch break, and I kept finding myself getting really unsettled and anxious, even though I was just sitting in a comfy coffee shop. I think what did it most was all Poe’s vivid descriptions. He not only put me exactly in the cell with the narrator, but he used other senses like sound, smell, and even taste, to really trap me near the pit with the prisoner.

Rating: ****
Up Next: 2001: A Space Odyssey

Book #81: The Purloined Letter

This was the second time that I read Edgar Allan Poe’s The Purloined Letter.

The Purloined Letter is the third story Poe wrote about the detective C. Auguste Dupin. In this Dupin adventure, the amateur detective is approached by the Parisian police with a sensitive problem. An important person is being blackmailed by a government minister, who stole a letter with incriminating contents. They would like Dupin’s help in getting the letter back.

Basically, if you’re a Sherlock fan (and, let’s be honest, if you aren’t yet, you should be, what’s wrong with you?), it’s pretty much the plot of A Scandal in Belgravia and, by extension, the plot of the Sherlock Holmes adventure A Scandal in Bohemia.

Dupin, being the logical, analytical, semi-professional detective that he is, is sent in to recover the letter and, he hopes, find a way to end the blackmailer’s political career.

I’m always interested in Poe’s prose because I mostly think of him as a poet (even though I’ve read more of his novellas than his poems). It’s interesting to see him write a detective, crime story instead of a creepy, gothic thing. It’s interesting to see the spin he puts on a pretty classic blackmail story.

Rating: ****
Up Next: To Kill A Mockingbird

Book #51: In A Glass Darkly

Started off the next set with Joseph Sheridan le Fanu’s In A Glass Darkly.

In a Glass Darkly is a collection of five short stories presented as the posthumous papers of one Doctor Hesselius. The doctor was an occult detective, so all the stories are creepy and involve ghosts, vampires, demons, other apparitions, or things that are just not normal. apparently le Fanu was the father of the Victorian/Gothic ghost story.

He doesn’t really disappoint here. The stories all have a decidedly gothic feel. They deal with the supernatural or unknown, sure, but there is definitely a Gothic undercurrent, where the Victorian characters grapple with desires or fears that society considers taboo. The unexplained might, in fact, just be something that isn’t accepted by society.

So it goes with the Gothic.

Random Tangent About Gothic Literature

One of the stories involves a vampire, but it has pretty obvious homosexual undertones. Several deal with suicides and the events leading up to them (all supernatural, of course). Obviously homosexual desires weren’t cool in Victorian time. It’s only natural that they would be part of the Gothic. And since, in 2013, suicide is still pretty taboo and frowned upon by the church, it was definitely very taboo in the Victorian age. So of course it shows up here.

I like to think of the Gothic as a negative picture. The real picture would be the Victorian world. You have societal norms and the ideals of the times. The Church, society, and status quo are all there creating the scenery, vocabulary, and thoughts of people everywhere. Those values are the accepted, normal ones.

But then there’s the negative. It’s everything that you don’t see in the Victorian. It’s the taboo desires, secret thoughts, and darkness and confusion that society shuns. But it’s there still. It’s there if you just look at it differently. If you dare.

End Random Tangent

I haven’t dealt with the most important question here. Are these stories scary?

To be honest, not really.

In A Glass Darkly reads a bit like those collections of scary ghost stories I used to check out of the library when I was younger. The ones about murderers loose on the highway, or the mummy that follows people down the road, or the monkey’s paw story…you know what I’m talking about (I hope). Actually, come to think of it, a lot of the stories in a particular collection I liked to check out are pretty close to the stories in Fanu’s book. Hmm.. . .

But I digress…

Although some of the stories are a bit creepy, none of them really made my hairs stand on end. They did deal with the unexplained, but there wasn’t much of an “OH MY GOSH I’M FREAKING OUTTTT!” factor. They just sort of…were.

Rating: ***
Up Next: Ignorance

The Creep, The Creep

I’m sorry to say that The Sea, The Sea was a little bit ruined for me.

I still thought the writing was beautiful. I still enjoyed the problem of an old man struggling to hold onto his fading youth. I really liked the spiritual aspects of it.

I even feel like I could make a really compelling argument that The Sea, The Sea is a Gothic piece of literature. There were an awful lot of interesting parallels with Jane Eyre, actually.

But that’s not what I’m going to write about today. (maybe later, actually. Because I think it’s really interesting)

But here’s the thing: CHARLES IS INSANE!!!

I just…I don’t know. I want to be able to accept his actions as part of the plot that would allow for reflection later, but I can’t. I just can’t.

River Song, Doctor Who, "Spoilers"

 

He can’t get over the first girl he fell in love with. He goes on to have a wonderful, glamorous life as a theater person, where he’s surrounded and adored by beautiful women.

He retires to a house by the sea where he can live in isolation. In his new village, he discovers his childhood girlfriend, Hartley. It turns out that she’s married and has a kid.

Charles can’t get over this. He’s sure that Hartley still wants to be with him, so he finds her 18-year-old son, uses him to lure her to his house, AND THEN HE LOCKS HER IN A ROOM UNTIL SHE AGREES TO LEAVE HER HUSBAND FOR HIM.

He even wants to legally adopt her son Titus. He pretends that he’s Titus’s real father. He convinces himself (based on eavesdropping and spying) that Hartley’s husband is abusive and dangerous.

I….I just…

I’m sorry. The story really does wind up in a beautiful place. Charles somehow comes through his insanity (I guess he never admits that he’s insane, but I’m just absolutely sure he is), accepts his lost youth, and begins to love his life and the people around him. In a way, I guess it reminds me of the movie “It’s A Wonderful Life,” because Charles finally realizes, in the end, that his life is wonderful and that he has great people around him.

It’s a great story of learning to let the past go.

However, I could really have done without the whole stalker thing. It kind of got in the way of my enjoying the rest of the story.

I might write another something about the beautiful themes and quotes from The Sea, The Sea another time.

But this is my gut/knee-jerk reaction to the book.

 

Rating: ***
Up Next: The Yellow Wallpaper
(except I posted slightly out of order. So. Whatever)

Book #36: The Yellow Wallpaper

Oh. My. God.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

I feel like “The Yellow Wallpaper” is one of those “English majors’ torture” stories. It’s the story that teachers and professors assign to their students when they want to freak them out and really get discussion going.

Thus, I’m very familiar with this short story.

Nothing, of course, will ever compare to the sheer horror of reading it for the first time. But it can still be a pretty interesting read.

My professors always want me to read it. They say it’s an interesting story. They say that Ms. Gilman gets inside the narrator’s head in an interesting way. They say that if you want to write, this is a good story to study. “It’s good for you,” they say. “You’ll learn from it.”

At this point I’m just horrified and, frankly, a little bored.

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There’s a very obvious feminist reading in this story, though. The narrator is having a nervous breakdown after she has a baby. She thinks that maybe getting out and doing things will help her, but he says she shouldn’t. Her opinions don’t matter. He’s a doctor and he knows what’s best for his wife.

And what’s best is to be shut up in a room with awful yellow wallpaper, so she can rest until she feels better.

She doesn’t really have a voice, my professors tell me. The men in her life are completely controlling her. It’d be enough to drive anybody crazy.

I really wish I didn’t have to read this story again. But it’s assigned in yet another class. This time we can talk about the gothic elements maybe, they say. Of course we’ll really just get into the “trapped woman” thing. But it’ll be slightly different. Maybe.

**********************************************************

There are lots of ways to read this story. We can read it from a Gothic perspective, a feminist perspective. We can read it as a horror story or maybe even a ghost story. Every time I read the story, it shifts and changes. I can’t seem to pin it down. It’s very strange. But maybe if I read it a few more times I’ll be able to figure it out.

No one’s assigning it anymore. But I know that if I just take a bit longer, I’ll finally know what it means. They can’t stop me now.

**********************************************************

I’ve figured it out. It’s about a real woman. She’s really there and Ms. Gilman has trapped her in the story. But she’s real and she’s there. Sometimes I can hear her wailing from the pages of my textbook. I know she’s there. Sometimes I think she gets out though. I feel like I see her walking around campus.

*********************************************************

I’m going helping her escape. I’m slowly tearing the pages away. Soon they won’t be able to put her back in the story. Soon she will finally be out of that room. She won’t have to creep or wail or lay in bed with nothing to do.

I think the story is about me.

I rip the pages out. They can’t stop me. I’m not defacing a book. I’m getting my freedom.

I’ve got out at last, Professor. In spite of you and the others. And I’ve ripped out most of the pages, so you can’t put me back.

 

(I hope people get what I did here. Otherwise this’ll just be a really freaking weird blog post, huh?)

Rating: *****
Up Next: Bunner Sisters

Enter the Gothic

Let me preface this with a great big I’m sorry for not writing for so long!

If it makes you feel any better, since the last time I read/book blogged, I’ve become a certified ESL teacher (which involved 15 hours of student teaching and, like, 60-some hours of training), found and moved into an apartment, and gotten all (read: MOST) of my Visa paperwork filled out. Also I’ve applied to and (sort of) gotten some jobs. So it’s not like I’ve been doing nothing.

Anyway, The Castle of Otranto.

It was really exciting to encounter the origin of Gothic literature. My last semester of college I took an entire class on Gothic literature, so I’m well aware of certain conventions and characteristics. I can’t read Gothic literature (or even anything that resembles Gothic literature, really) without being super aware of them. For example, did you know that there’s a labyrinth near the end of every Harry Potter book? I’ll let you figure them out, but seriously. Gothic.

What surprised me about The Castle of Otranto was how not bizarre and over-the-top it was. When I think Gothic literature, I think The Monk and outrageously surreal situations and everything carried out to the extreme degree. Here I could certainly recognize Gothic elements – Isabella fleeing Manfred through the caves, seeking sanctuary and a life of purity in the monastery, the pure hero Theodore, the supernatural events, desires, etc. However, they weren’t as extreme as I’m used to. I guess this makes sense. Other Gothic writers had a model to follow – this one.

In that way, it was interesting to think about the characters and the construction of the plot. Otranto really is a bridge of sorts between the old fantastical romances of Sir Walter Scott & co. and the new realism. Walpole really did create something that had never been seen before. It’s interesting to think about the direction everyone else took it.

That said, I think that my literary-historical fascination with Otranto was the thing I liked most about it. Otherwise the book itself was sort of underwhelming. The plot wasn’t all that impressive (not a whole lot happened, really) and the characters were just sort of…there. The tension between desires, society, and the supernatural that I’ve come to expect and kind of love about Gothic literature wasn’t there. Really, not a whole lot was there.

Maybe I’m just biased because I was expecting some of the Gothic-ness that I love to hate, but Otranto was missing a little bit of something.

Rating: ***
Up Next: Cranford

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