The Terror of the Uncanny: A Look at Narrative in Mark Z. Danielewski’s ‘House of Leaves’

Written By Ashley Starling

“You’ll finish [reading] and that will be that, until a moment will come, maybe in a month, maybe a year, maybe even several years. […] Out of the blue, beyond any cause you can trace, you’ll suddenly realize things are not how you perceived them at all. For some reason, you will no longer be the person you believed you once were. […] And then the nightmares will begin.” – Johnny Truant, introduction to House of Leaves

When surveying the varieties of ghost stories, we will notice a mix of styles used to generate fear. Realistic presentation, like that used in the Paranormal Activity films, which uses shaky camera techniques might generate more fear than a conventionally produced film. A ghost story written as poetry has the potential to incite sympathy or sorrow rather than fear because of the inherently introspective nature of poetry. In his novel House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski writes in the postmodern structure of multi-layered narratives which works to produce horror through multiple characters. This multi-layered narrative, in conjunction with Danielewski’s manifestation of Sigmund Freud’s concept of the uncanny, works to create a haunting that does not need to rely on ghosts alone to scare the reader.

The translation of the German word for uncanny, unheimlich, is literally “the unhomely,” which suggests that which should be familiar or comforting (“homely”) but which isn’t. Freud fashions a complicated weave of additional definitions, such as that which “arouses dread and horror” (Freud 219), that which should be “secret and hidden but has come to light” (224), and that which “has undergone repression and has returned from it” (245). In House of Leaves, Danielewski uses facets of the uncanny to sculpt a sentient haunting, in which the house itself is the haunting figure instead of simply housing any ghostly apparitions within. The real horror, however, does not come from the sentient house itself but rather from Danielewski’s incorporation of the uncanny into his narrative.

Danielewski’s lengthy novel features a multi-layered narrative that recounts the haunting of a house on the fictional Ash Tree Lane. At the center of this novel is the haunting itself, starring Will Navidson and his family as he produces a documentary (The Navidson Report) of the mysterious door, intricate labyrinth, and expanding walls that have appeared in the home. This documentary is presented to the reader only through the half-finished book written by the blind old man Zampano. After Zampano dies under strange circumstances, young drug-addict Johnny Truant picks up his novel and attempts to complete it, all the while adding the story of his own life in the footnotes. Finally, the (fictional) editors of the book themselves make additional comments and incorporate appendices and exhibitions. This complicated, often confusing narrative style makes the haunting at the center even more effective. Readers become just as disoriented as the characters as they attempt to navigate between main text, footnotes, artifacts, red text, blue text, upside down and sometimes sideways text. Just as Navidson never quite understands the actions of his haunted house, the reader never quite understands the flow of the story.

This postmodern narrative technique serves to emphasize the uncanniness as it progresses through its many layers. The core story of Navidson and the sentient house provides the initial “dread and horror” attributed to the uncanny. By depicting Navidson and his family within a sentient house, Danielewski takes away the temporary security that families in traditional haunted houses can obtain. While those families get momentary relief during the time the ghost is inactive, Navidson cannot escape from his demented house at any point in the story. This is one twisted aspect of Navidson’s story: rather than running away, his family must actually incorporate the strangeness of their house into daily life or else they would not keep their sanity.

The next narrative layer is that of Zampano and his book analyzing the Navidson documentary. By taking The Navidson Report and attempting to expose its curiosities, Zampano has attempted to uncover what was secret and let it come to light, using another definition of the uncanny. Zampano himself holds a degree of uncanniness: the reader does not meet the old man until after he has died and even then only gets a taste of his character through his writing. As Truant investigates the man, who exactly Zampano was becomes tediously revealed. Until his past is unearthed, Zampano’s influence ghosts over the entire text. We hear his voice through the words in the book, and this is what pushes the account of the haunting forward–yet the man himself remains a mystery.

Finally, the last narrative layer, Johnny Truant’s, makes evident that the definition of the uncanny as what has been repressed and has returned can be applied to his character. As explained in the many footnotes and in the accompanying letters from his insane mother, Johnny has many events from his past that are quite a burden. In the first part of House of Leaves, Johnny never mentions these traumatic experiences, only focusing on the present. His constant drug use and tendency to make up epic lies about his past work to repress the influence of his deceased father and mad mother. As Truant delves deeper into Zampano’s text, however, he learns to face his own issues. His repressed experiences from his youth resurface as Truant reads about Navidson’s exploration into the labyrinth. It is as if Navidson’s physical journey motivates Truant to deal with his repression. By the end of the novel, Truant no longer represses his childhood, but the influence of his past within his present lifestyle maintains the sense of uncanny.

Danielewski’s House of Leaves is a complex page-turning tome that utilizes various aspects of the uncanny in its unique multi-layered narrative in order to maximize the horror within the story. It is this unique technique that pushes this novel past being just a ghost story and into being a tale that will plague its readers with nightmares.

Works Cited

Danielewski, Mark Z. House of Leaves. New York: Pantheon, 2000. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. “The ‘Uncanny'” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. XVII. London: Hogarth, 1919. 217-56. Web.

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