Okay, so I intended for this post to go up in October, but it took me awhile to finish House of Leaves, and honestly, whatever—Spooktober can live on in our hearts year round. So yeah. Here’s a ton of spooky stuff that I’ve been reading.
Universal Harvester by John Darnielle — Universal Harvester begins with Jeremy, a VHS rental store clerk in the small town of Nevada, Iowa, when customers begin returning tapes and complaining that something has been taped over part of them. When Jeremy inspects the tapes, he finds odd, lingering shots of a farmhouse spliced into the middle of the movies—and the inserted footage only becomes more and more disturbing.
But that’s just where the book begins. As it progresses, the narrative winds its way through various small Iowa towns, backward and forward in time, sometimes leaning more toward horror, sometimes more toward the mundane (which isn’t to say that the two aren’t connected.) Overall the book is very atmospheric, but it isn’t an atmosphere of constant dread. It’s a portrait of the midwest that is loving without being provincial, critical without falling back on the old clichés we all know about middle America and rural communities. That’s really what struck me about the book—its quiet, steady chronicling of the lives of characters dealing with loss, struggling to find home, caught between staying and leaving. It’s a book without climaxes, no do-or-die moments, just endless process, a book about living.
Again, atmosphere, place, that’s what’s stuck with me from this book—and Darnielle’s lucid, sometimes wry, always honest narrative voice fits this setting and that atmosphere perfectly.
This description of a small town, in particular, I keep coming back to, especially the phrase, “Who, outside, will ever see it?”:
A little drab from the outside, maybe: slow, or plain. But who, outside, will ever see it, or learn the subtleties of its textures, the specific tensions of its warp and weft? You have to get inside to see anything worth seeing, you have to listen long enough to hear the music. Or possibly that’s a thing you just tell yourself when it becomes clear you won’t be leaving. Sometimes that seems more likely. It’s hard to say for sure.
It’s common for horror authors to use a mundane, realistic setting to heighten the scariness of the horror, though here it seems to be the other way around. The subtle, quiet horrors revealed in Universal Harvester heighten the reality of the mundane setting—they are partially-resolved horrors, half-glimpsed horrors, lingering horrors that you can live with and even forget about eventually. I can definitely see myself going back to this book if I want to drench myself in that slightly-spooky atmosphere again, or if I find myself nostalgic for Iowa someday.
Worth noting, John Darnielle narrates the audiobook, and does a great job. As well, the audiobook actually uses music in more places than just the beginning and the end! It infuriates me that more audiobooks don’t do this, as if they’re somehow still trying to be books. So there’s that.
The Grip of It by Jac Jemc — This is a haunted house novel about a young couple moving from a large city to a small town, hoping to escape the husband’s gambling addiction by getting away from the city. I say “haunted,” but really who knows what’s going on with this house. The place is full of odd little crawlspaces and empty gaps between rooms, and there’s an incessant drone of unknown origin—and that’s just the beginning. The book moves at a brisk pace, switching between first-person narration of Julie (the wife) and James (the husband), as they each make their own encounters with the terror of the house, and struggle to stay unified as a couple.
Jemc knows exactly what buttons to push to create the perfect creepy moments, and this book is full of them. While I wouldn’t say this book is very atmospheric—so much focus is on the interiority of the characters, and the conflict between them—all these individual moments do gel together. The constant relief of the chapter end and shift of viewpoint (each chapter is only about two or three pages) might work to dispel a continuous sense of dread, but it does heighten these little vignettes of horror, and it all builds to a made-me-squirm climax that blends the horror of the house with real-life, visceral horror.
That’s what this book is really interested—the haunted house approached with psychological realism. At the center of the story is this conflict between two people, two people having disparate experiences with the house, and trying to cope with this horror (or trying to defeat it) in conflicting ways. While I generally don’t go in for books about marital strife, I did get a lot out of seeing each character’s individual reactions to the house. Because, realistically, if you live in a haunted house, some days you’re just going to ignore it, try to move on with your life. Some days you’ll have some manic burst of energy, trying to solve it, trying to stop it. Some days you’ll blame yourself for what’s going on—and wouldn’t it be more appealing to believe that it’s your fault, that you’re the problem and you can therefore somehow stop it just by yourself? These are the issues Jemc gets into, and if this sounds intriguing, definitely give this book a read.
Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell — Funnily enough, this is actually a book I read for my Literary Translation class, and it just so happened to be very very creepy. It’s a first-person novella, recounted by a woman in a hospital talking to a young boy, trying to remember the events that led her up to this moment. In stark contrast with The Grip of It, this book never provides release. There is no viewpoint switch, no chapters, no scene breaks. The book just keeps pushing forward, with the boy, David, urging the narrator on, continually telling her to get to the important part before they run out of time.
The original title of this book is Distancia de rescate, which means “rescue distance”—the narrator, Amanda, always wants to keep her daughter within rescue distance. And that’s really where the increasing anxiety that this book induces comes from—where is Nina, what is happening to her, how far away is she? It’s the anxiety of parenthood, the anxiety that “sooner or later something terrible will happen,” as the narrator says at one point. And it does. But before that, throughout the book, Schweblin drops in several sharp, unnerving images, which keep up the feeling that that something terrible is approaching fast.
Although the ending, the concluding paragraphs of this book, were a bit abrupt, the book as a whole is terrific, and I’m eager to read more of Schweblin’s work.
House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski — House of Leaves is a metafictional haunted house book about a guy named Johnny Truant who finds a manuscript by a guy named Zampanò which is an analysis/scene-by-scene description of a fictional movie called The Navidson Record, which is where we get the haunted house narrative, because The Navidson Record is a found footage (or actual documentary?) film about a family moving into a home which quickly reveals itself to have impossible architecture, culminating in the appearance of a door which leads into an ever-changing dark labyrinth of bare hallways and empty rooms.
Before getting into the ergodic nature of this book, I’ll talk about the story itself. The book basically tracks two narratives—the narrative of The Navidson Record and the narrative of Johnny Truant, the latter of which plays out mainly in footnotes. Truant is a kind of scummy character that I was initially put off by, especially given the way his enormous footnotes interrupt the action of the main text, but as the book goes on he’s revealed to be a truly earnest and kind of pitiable guy, whose story I found as compelling as Will Navidson’s. The Navidson narrative is what initially drew me in though. Something about the combination of the analytical, scholarly style (as an English and Spanish double major, it’s a style I’m quite familiar with) and the creepiness of the house really had me turning the pages—and Danielewski executes that critical style to a T (with the one exception that an actual critical work would never spend so much time on summary, but even so those long stretches of narrative don’t feel jarring.) The creepy reveals build in a very satisfying way, as do the longer and longer ventures into the dark labyrinth of the house. It feels like something overwhelming and horrible is always around the corner, and then boom, it is. However, right around the two-thirds point of the book is a long stretch where the house isn’t so much the focus, and it takes about five chapters (the book is 23 chapters long in total) to get back to the house. Not that there was nothing interesting going on in those chapters, there was, but having them all back to back kind of killed the momentum for a bit. Regardless, the climax of the book ramps right back up again, with both the Truant narrative and the Navidson narrative coming to a head, and leaving on surprising and satisfying denouements.
This book engages with a lot of genres, and horror is just one of them, but where Danielewski goes for horror it definitely works. There’s even one stunning section where Zampanò seems to just be on some pointless esoteric digression, only to spin everything he’s been saying around to reveal why one small detail about the house is terrifying—and it fucking works! Also, the whole concept of the labyrinth is spooky AF. Last year I read a handful of claustrophobia-inducing pieces, and the labyrinth is the opposite. The size of it, the unfathomable uncrossable volume of some of it’s chambers, is what is so frightening about it.
As far as characters, the book does a good job at helping the reader understand them, even though all the characters in The Navidson Record are being viewed through multiple layers of analysis. And like I said, Johnny Truant became one of my favorite characters. The big disappointment is with the book’s women. Mostly there aren’t any, and the ones that there are mainly exist as related to male characters (the worst offender being Truant’s mom, ugh, there’s a bunch of letters by her included in the appendix of the second edition of House of Leaves, and my god, they only talk about her son, like she has no interiority or life outside of him whatsoever, it was the only part of the book that was truly dull to read.) So there’s that. Karen, Navidson’s wife, is probably the best one, though she’s kind of off to the side for a lot of the book.
Now, on to the weird shit.
The book is ergodic, meaning the layout of many pages requires some effort from the reader to follow, at times flipping the book upside down or sideways to be able to read the text. Basically, Danielewski throws every weird formatting or extratextual thing he can at the reader—different colored text, changing layouts, varying fonts, hundreds of footnotes, three different appendices, you get the idea. For the most part, Danielewski takes just one aspect of the formatting and messes with it based on the content of the chapter. For example, in a chapter describing characters communicating in morse code, the way the text is broken into long and short sections spells out words in morse. Although this form-follows-function pairing of content and subverted formatting seemed a bit on the nose or gimmicky at times, overall I really enjoyed it. Where things were encoded, or text was missing, it was exciting to have to do the work to figure it out, putting me in the mind of Zampanò, or Truant, trying to analyze the text or do research, or of Navidson, trying to unravel the mystery of the labyrinth. Anytime the act of reading itself becomes dramatic, I love it, and this book definitely gave me that. The times where the text layout is formatted strangely (like, say, a page of blank space with one sentence at the bottom) didn’t always work for me, but when it did I loved it, and it truly did add a level of immersion to the reading experience.
A side effect of the weird formatting of this book is that I had no idea how long it would take to read. It’s over 700 pages long, but some of those pages are almost totally blank, and some are crammed full of text with just the thinnest of margins, so it’s impossible to judge. And that sense of never knowing how far from the end I was was super exciting—both because it really threw me to the mercy of Danielewski, never knowing when the climax was coming or how close to a midpoint I was, and because it perfectly evoked the experience of Navidson in the labyrinth, not knowing how far the hallway extends, not knowing how far he’ll have to walk back to return to the safety of the living room.
An added weirdness to House of Leaves is that, as I discovered when googling the title of a photograph mentioned in one chapter to see if it was real, there’s a whole semi-active forum dedicated to discussion of this book, with posts going all the way back to 2001, full of old conversations and competing interpretations of the book—a whole ‘nother layer of metafiction to heap on top of things (although it’s not fiction, it’s a real forum.)
So, yeah, I really enjoyed this book, I wish there were more books like it, and if you’ve got time on your hands and want to have a disorienting, super-meta, ergodic reading experience, absolutely read this book. And it’s nice and spoopy, too.
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[…] with Darnielle’s second book Universal Harvester, which I loved, there is also a focus on the banal. At one point near the end of the book, Sean describes talking […]