Posts Tagged ‘horror’

Book #111: House of Leaves

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


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 


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 #70: The Island of Doctor Moreau

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I started H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau. I knew it would be science-fictiony, but I wasn’t prepared for brutal genetic mutation and human experimentation.

It was definitely creepier than I expected, and much closer to something that could happen in real life than I typically prefer my creepy science fiction to be. A shipwrecked Edward Prendick winds up being rescued and brought to an island inhabited by Doctors Montgomery and Moreau.

Doctor Moreau is a vivisectionist trying to form animals into humans, complete with coherent thoughts and humanlike features. He has been largely successful, except for one thing – he can’t stop the half-men he’s created from reverting back to their natural, beastly state, no matter how hard he tries. Some will become “civilized” for a short amount of time, even able to speak and communicate, before reverting.

The island is a scary in-between place, with creatures struggling to remain men and men struggling to control and manipulate the creatures they have created. The pseudo-society on the island places Moreau as a malevolent god, ready to shoot any beasts who break his strict rules and revert back to their natural states, breaking with civilization.

The “civilized” society on the island is in a constant state of near-collapse; at any point, something could break, and all the Beast Folk, as they’re called, could revert to their animal state and overrun the island.

In a way, The Island of Doctor Moreau reminds me a little of a creepier, more unreal Lord of the Flies. In both, you can have a society that can easily degenerate into anarchy, with humans throwing off the mores of civilization and becoming like animals. The civilizations in both of these books ultimately do fall apart. The difference is that in Moreau, it’s animals becoming animals again. The trouble is that in the middle, those animals looked an awful lot like men.

For the scientific-minded, Wells’ book can call into question many moral questions about genetic manipulation, as well as the nature of humanity and science’s impact on society.

Rating: ****

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

Something Wicked This Way Comes

We need to talk about how much I love Ray Bradbury.

He’s just…I don’t know. He’s special, somehow. There’s something about him and his writing that just makes me feel things. I don’t even know how to put those feelings into words, really. I might try, but that runs the risk of this just turning into less of a “review” and more of a “Ray Bradbury is AMAZING” post. But I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that.

Basically, when I read most Ray Bradbury books, I feel like he’s my grandpa. I imagine him sitting in an old rocking chair, wearing a green terrycloth robe and brown slippers. I’m sitting at his feet, threading his shag carpet (because grandparents’ houses all have shag carpet, right?) and listening to him tell stories. All day. Because he’s telling me stories that help me understand life and make me confront tough ideas, but in a way that makes me feel safe.

Whenever I’m especially aware of my own mortality and feeling really freaked out about that, or whenever I suddenly realize “OH MY GOD, I’M NOT A KID ANYMORE, WHAT IS THIS?!?!?!”, I read Bradbury. It helps, somehow. It also (if I’m reading any of the Greentown stuff) makes me feel like I’m a 12-year-old boy. This is oddly comforting.

Anyway, Something Wicked This Way Comes was another make-me-feel-better-about-getting-older-and-my-eventual-and-inevitable-death book. It’s about two 13-year-old boys, Jim Nightshade and Will Halloway, who wind up pitted against the evil carnival that comes to town, complete with a carousel that can either add or subtract years from your life.

The idea of aging–and dying–is present throughout the whole book. Jim, more melancholy than his best friend, wonders what it’s like to be older. He wants to skip the awkward teenage years, it seems. Meanwhile, Will’s father (to me anyway) watches his son and his friend get to be boys and misses his own youth.

I related the most to the father, actually. Sometimes I have these moments where I’m suddenly aware that I’m, basically, an adult. It’s almost like some past version of me, some past consciousness, suddenly wakes up and is like, “Ummm…what’s with all the responsibility? What is this?!” These moments are always very brief, but for a few seconds it’s almost like I’m living a nightmare. Like suddenly I’m trapped in this adult body and I can’t do the things I used to do. I feel like that’s what Mr. Halloway is going through during the whole book. He watches his son and realizes that he isn’t a boy anymore. And it’s almost like it feels like a nightmare.

This horror, I suppose, is also connected with the carousel. Imagine being 12 or 13 and suddenly, you’re in an adult’s body. Horrifying, I think. Also, that’s sort of what growing up feels like at times.

So what I liked most about the book was watching Mr. Halloway come to terms with himself and, eventually, accept his age. He fights tooth and nail to save Jim and Will from aging on the carousel and, in the process, discovers a way to stop himself from aging, at least inwardly.

What I love about Bradbury is how simple his metaphors are. It’s incredibly easy and fun to get at the greater, more important meaning behind the story. Threaded through the scary story that kept me reading all day was something I needed to learn. But Bradbury didn’t just tell me what he wanted to teach me. He told me the story and let me figure it out for myself. Which somehow made the lesson that much truer.

What’s the lesson, you ask?

I could tell you. But I think instead you’ll have to read Something Wicked This Way Comes and decide for yourself. I wouldn’t want to spoil the fun for anyone else.

Rating: *****
But really, I’ll probably give five stars to everything Bradbury writes. It should really just be implied.

Oh, also, for several years, this song has been stuck in my head every time I read a book by Ray Bradbury. It really captures the, um, love, some of us fangirls have for him.
*Disclaimer: Contains swearing and is DEFINITELY NSFW

It comforts me to know that other people love him as much (well, more, I suppose) than I do. Except, you know, I think of him as my grandpa so, the whole, you know, sleeping with him thing is totally off the table.


Book #21: The Castle of Otranto

So, Tokyo Cancelled isn’t really working out. It’s not that it’s not good, it’s just that it’s not what I want to be the only book I’m reading right now. If that makes sense. So I’m going to go ahead and go on to the next book on the list. Maybe that’ll get me reading more. I think I just need to resolve to read for at least 30 minutes a day, even with lesson planning and spending 12 hours at school.

Anyway, I’m about to start reading The Castle of Otranto. I’ve heard a lot about this book, but I still don’t know what it’s about. Here’s what I know:

It’s Gothic.
Jane Austen references it in Northanger Abbey.
If it’s Gothic, there’s going to be stuff about desire and hidden lust and all that super-secret stuff that we’re not “supposed” to talk about in it.
It might be horribly (read: ridiculously and dramatically) written.

So, I’m not really expecting to enjoy The Castle of Otranto. But I haven’t been reading enough and I’m hoping that jumping back on board with this project will get me reading again. I really miss reading.

The Haunting of Hill House

I finished The Haunting of Hill House today! Woot!

I read it because I was playing chess with my friend. He knew from our last chess-and-apple-cider/pumpkin-spice-chai meeting that I’d read The Shining. Apparently it’s one of his favorite books, so we got to discussing it. (God I love that book. So. Good. )

We got to talking about Shirley Jackson (yes, the woman who wrote The Lottery) and how does horror so well. My friend told me that she was a huge influence on Stephen King and that he has even said that Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is THE perfect horror story.*

I promised to read The Haunting of Hill House so we could discuss it. And I’m true to my word. Sometimes. In this case it’s mostly because I like horror stories.

I didn’t like The Haunting of Hill House as well as I liked The Shining. They are certainly similar, to be sure. Both involve a “haunted” building that eats at the consciousness of the people who stay there. Both have a certain aspect of insanity or internal instability (read: psychological thriller). Both include wonderful use of a PLACE as a character in a book.

I was going to continue to compare and contrast The Shining and The Haunting of Hill House, but I would wind up talking too much about The Shining, so I’m not going to do that.

The Haunting of Hill House is certainly frightening. Jackson’s writing is brilliant and she tackles her narrator’s consciousness so thoroughly that you can follow the descent into madness. As events start to unfold and mysterious things start to happen, the psychological unease grows.

Hill House itself serves as a character. It groans and breathes and sucks the inhabitants in. But perhaps the story’s true brilliance is its ambiguity. Jackson never says outright what is happening. Things get weirder and weirder and as a reader you become less sure of which events are really happening. A (semi) unreliable narrator contributes to this as well.

Overall, sanity has no place here. Neither in Hill House nor in the book. Like the house itself, which is uneven and disorienting, The Haunting of Hill House places readers in a strange place with little solid, expected ground. In this case, that is a good thing.

So, while I found The Shining more frightening (I just think that King is better at creating tension through pacing), readers who love horror should not pass up The Haunting of Hill House.

*After a cursory google search, I haven’t actually found any quotes of Stephen King saying this, but I do know that he cited Shirley Jackson as an inspiration and that some editions of The Shining, he quotes The Haunting of Hill House in the epigraph.

Rating: ****

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