Special Mention in the 2016 WTM Riches Essay Prize


According to Dale Bailey, “since Poe first described the House of Usher in 1839, the motif of the haunted house has assumed an enduring role in the American tradition” (Bailey 6). Indeed, from Poe’s ghost stories to Hollywood horror, dwellings populated by specters and supernatural entities have become a staple motif of American literature. In part, the enduring popularity of the haunted house formula depends upon its thematic dimension; houses in literature not only serve as plot devices but also as metaphors for particular narrative themes or psychological structures of characters. The deteriorating house in Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” for instance, can be read as symbolic of the decline of the family residing there (Beebe 1). Further, the haunted house tale became a natural device for exploiting cultural anxieties. The Gothic (of which the haunted house tale is a sub-genre) has long provided an outlet for the expression of fears implicated in major shifts in cultural attitudes and Gothic works can be seen as attempts to account for the uncertainty of such shifts (Botting 21-22). As Robert Miles puts it, the Gothic arises “as a result of some historical seismic shift in the deep structure of the self, or in the structure that may or may not have produced it” (200). The haunted house tale is a particularly suitable sub-genre to deal with this experience because the haunted house is one of the most popular topos of the uncanny, a major theme of Gothic literature, which has been characterised as a fundamental insecurity or feeling of alienation caused by intellectual uncertainty, “a sense of something new, foreign, and hostile invading an old familiar world” (Vidler 23). Certainly, in the late eighteenth century, Gothic terror and anxiety related to a rapidly changing world characterised by violence, disorientation, and loss of meaning and faith; Enlightenment rationalism displaced religion as the authoritative mode of explaining the world and transformed conceptions of the relations between the individual and natural, supernatural, and social worlds; the outcomes of this age of reason produced novels such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein which articulated fears relating to the rise of science and godlessness (Beville 23). The sub-genre of the haunted house tale, particularly in American literature, is rooted in a similar tradition of social criticism as writers consistently employ the house as a symbol for exploring American themes, ideologies and similar shifts in cultural attitudes.

Unsurprisingly, the Gothic novel re-emerged at the dawn of postmodernity. Although instigated by different events, “Gothic-postmodernism” mimics its eighteenth-century parallels and is influenced by the changing times in which it is written, employing and reinventing Gothic forms to encompass the anxieties of the postmodern age; in particular (and in contrast to its eighteenth-century counterpart) the profound loss of faith in the Enlightenment narratives and “overarching concepts of truth and reality” (Beville 8). Indeed, as Isabel Pinedo notes, the postmodern world is an unstable one in which institutions are called into question and universalizing grand theory becomes discredited (“Postmodern Elements” 86). Jean-Francois Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition asserted that postmodernism is characterised by “incredulity towards metanarratives,” meaning, extreme skepticism towards the over-arching grand narratives which purport to explain how the world works, such as history or religion, for example (xxxiv). It is the view of such discourses as artificial rather than natural or given. Further, postmodern literature critically challenges ideas of literary canon, value, and approach, often achieved through metafictional strategies which foreground the text’s status as an artificial construct (Botting 16). Childs says that, for postmodernist writers, “language constitutes reality, it does not describe the world but constructs it” (52). Theorists such as Roland Barthes and Jacques Lacan make similar claims. Barthes in “The Death of the Author” asserts that language speaks us and precedes us, that we cannot write anything truly original or express anything innate but merely arrange ready-formed linguistic structures into particular narratives or messages (Robinson): “the writer can only imitate a gesture forever anterior, never original; his only power is to combine the different kinds of writing” (Barthes 4). Lacanian theory proposes “that a person’s identity is a product of language, rather than language being a product of a person’s identity,” which takes this idea further in suggesting that human identity itself is a construct (Beville 48). Certainly, in the age of postmodernity, identity is also viewed as something that is gradually constructed by external forces rather than fixed from birth. Emphasizing the role of dominant ideologies in the shaping of individual identity, postmodern theory attends to the relationship between discourse and power in the construction of values, conventions, and norms (Botting 17). Judith Butler, for instance, demonstrated in her writings how identity and behaviour is constructed according to dominant conventions of gender, while Michel Foucault argued that discourse governs one’s thought, meaning, that one’s opinions on particular issues are neither natural nor predetermined (Louwen 6). Moreover, texts such as Arnold Weinstein’s Nobody’s Home is analogous to such views in his assertion that “nothingness” lies beneath all forms of identity: “nothingness is primal … Nobody lurks within all selves, … our forms of being are culturally produced” (Weinstein 5). Suffice to say, the postmodern era is underscored by a radical and increasing repudiation of our overarching concepts of truth and reality.

According to Alan Pratt in his essay “Nihilism,” this extreme skepticism towards the “all embracing foundations that we have relied on to make sense of the world” is disturbing because when we “expose all cherished beliefs and sacrosanct truths as symptoms of a defective Western mythos … life is revealed as nothing; and … nothingness is the source of not only absolute freedom but also existential horror and emotional anguish.” Defined by a lack of value, meaning, and identity then, life for the postmodern subject is “terrifyingly unreal and indefinable” (Beville 49). According to Maria Beville in Gothic-Postmodernism, it is this experience that preoccupies Gothic-postmodernist literature. The dissolution of reality and subjectivity is emphasised in pervasive themes of uncertainty and disruption and is presented through traditional Gothic tropes including supernatural occurrences and possession; typical features of Gothic-postmodernism also include incoherence, ambiguous endings, the blurring of boundaries between reality and the supernatural, and, most significantly, the undermining of basic assumptions about reality. Beville cites Bret Easton Ellis’ Lunar Park as an example, in that the novel employs a traditional Gothic aesthetic and is simultaneously read as a mediation on the postmodernist “unreliability of everything, to a … terrifying degree” (198-200). Pinedo makes a similar argument, asserting that postmodern horror films, specifically, throw into question our basic principles of Western society, in particular temporal order and causal logic, noting that in films such as A Nightmare on Elm Street, we see discrepancies in time and an absence of any logical explanation for its violent narrative events (Pinedo, Recreational Terror 26-27). Certainly, we can add to this that discourses such as language collapse in postmodern horror, evident in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining; the dialogue of which in the final half hour is composed almost exclusively of citations from other texts and, eventually, reduced merely to screams and ominous music.

However, it is arguable that the typical features of Gothic-postmodernism noted above can be found in earlier, original gothic novels as well (for instance, according to Beville’s definition of Gothic-postmodern features, novels such as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1835 short story “Young Goodman Brown” could qualify as postmodern). Rather, what appears to distinguish Gothic-postmodern texts from their predecessors specifically is that the undermining of basic assumptions of reality is often among the main sources of terror or “antagonist” in the narrative, a central horror thematic of the text rather than a “feature” of it. For instance, while there are numerous sources of horror in Kubrick’s The Shining, from ghosts to demonic possession to literally men in monster suits (recall the bizarre scene of the figure in a bear costume kneeling at the feet of a tuxedoed man), the ultimate terror seems to stem from skepticism towards our principles of reality, in particular those that relate to the crisis of representation associated with postmodernity. Postmodern thinking not only proposes one’s inability to produce work of any originality due to language speaking and preceding us but also asserts the exhaustion of the literary form, the impossibility to say or do anything new in the novel following the achievements of modernism, apart from making this apparent exhaustion the subject of the work (a sentiment voiced by John Barth in his essay “The Literature of Exhaustion”) (Nicol 50). Indeed, The Shining’s protagonist Jack Torrance appears haunted by “writer’s block” as opposed to the spirits of the Overlook (in fact, it is Jack who seeks out these demons regularly in the film and is rarely, if ever, ambushed by them; he also seems at his most comfortable when conversing with them). Additionally, critics such as Fredrick Jameson in his essay “Historicism in The Shining,” which defines the film as a thoroughly postmodern work of art, claims that “The Shining, whatever else it is, is … the story of a failed writer” (93), that this horror is ultimately “about the impossibility of cultural or literary production” (93).

Moreover, texts such as David Lynch’s Twin Peaks take further this idea of the undermining of basic assumptions of reality as a source of horror or horror theme, in that the television series not only undermines these assumptions but at times dispenses with them completely and frames such instances as frightening. This is particularly evident in the final episode, which takes place in The Black Lodge. The Black Lodge is the otherworldly location in the series’ fictional town and it is literally devoid of any stable sense of time, geography, language, and identity. Inhabitants of the Lodge speak backwards and make non-sensical gestures, which has been regarded by viewers as representative of a “lack of language”; identity is arbitrary as these figures are shown to metamorphose into one another and randomly exchange identities; time has no meaning in this space either in that it alternatingly runs normal, slower, or stands still; navigation is impossible in that those entering the Lodge continuously return to the same room regardless of which direction they take and the internal dimensions of the Lodge appear to exceed that of its exterior.

The Black Lodge in Twin Peaks is thereby significant because it foreshadows the development of the postmodern haunted house tale in two ways. Firstly, it dispenses with much of the traditional Gothic machinery, specifically, the ghosts and monstrous creatures central to early haunted house tales. Instead, the terror stems definitively from the undermining and loss of some of the basic principles of reality, and the discourses we use to make sense of it; in this case, time, geography, identity, and language. Secondly, because these entities gradually and visibly disappear within this space, Twin Peaks appears to employ the haunted house formula to reflect the anguish produced by the postmodern skepticism towards, and resulting decline of, such basic principles and discourses. In contrast to the traditional haunted house then, the Lodge appears to be haunted by something more akin to the postmodern sense of “nothingness” discussed in Pratt’s essay rather than the more typical ghost or monstrous character.

I propose that Twin Peaks set a precedent for the postmodern haunted house tale. Through a close examination of one of the most extraordinary works of Gothic-postmodernism, Mark Z Danielewski’s House of Leaves, I will demonstrate that the haunted house has altered in contemporary American literature in order to represent the postmodern incredulity towards metanarratives and the resulting sense of nothingness that Pratt describes and that a new variation of the haunted house has emerged. It is no longer occupied by ghosts and apparitions but depicted instead as disturbingly empty, as a void-like non-sensical space that is haunted by the far more chilling reminder of life’s apparent meaninglessness. Catherine Spooner in Contemporary Gothic notes that though the “Gothic may be a set of discourses that thrives on revival … in the context of postmodernity this process has been short circuited … now [the Gothic] simply expresses the void at the heart of modern consumer culture” (155). The haunted house is a very appropriate metaphor for this anxiety because a house is a type of building; thus, the postmodern haunted house tale uses constructions to represent the postmodern view of everything as a construction.

Mark Z Danielewski’s House of Leaves centres on a traumatised individual named Johnny Truant and his experience of assembling a manuscript he discovers entitled “The Navidson Record.” The manuscript was previously edited by a deceased man named Zampanò, and it purports to document a film about the life of a family—Will Navidson, Karen Green, and their two children—and their move to a house that contains an infinite labyrinth with unstable internal dimensions. The device of the haunted house is employed to represent a number of themes in the text. In an interview conducted by Larry McCaffrey and Sinda Gregory, Danielewski stated that “all the theoretical concepts that I have been wrestling with are represented by this house … [they] could be compressed into one icon” (“Haunted House” 105). Among the theoretical concepts Danielewski’s house symbolizes are the postmodern distrust of master narratives and of concepts of reality and the feeling of nothingness and of lack of meaning generated by this skepticism, because firstly, the house undermines discourses and principles used to make sense of the world such as geography and time, and secondly, the house is characterised by a sense of emptiness and meaninglessness and is thereby at times literally devoid of these entities. As Will Slocombe notes:

House of Leaves introduces the idea that nihilism exists beneath all forms of discourse … The problem of nihilism is implicit in most postmodern or poststructuralist fiction, but House of Leaves suggests a much more radical approach … Through the figure of the house, Danielewski offers an unprecedented textual mediation of nothingness and the way in which this relates to literature, architecture, and philosophy. … The house symbolizes absence … (“This Is Not For You” 88-92)

It is this sense of “absence,” then, that I argue haunts Danielewski’s house and acts as a metaphor for the anxiety produced by the postmodern view of discourses and principles of reality as artificial constructs.

For instance, when discussing haunted houses in The Architectural Uncanny, Anthony Vidler notes that this motif draws upon the tradition of the uncanny, that is, when something familiar is made unfamiliar:

“[T]he uncanny” as a concept has found its metaphorical home in architecture – first and foremost in the house … [there is a] general drift of the uncanny movement from homely to unhomely, a movement in most ghost stories where an apparently homely house turns gradually into a site of horror. (11-14)

In other words, a common characteristic of these dwellings is that they initially appear to be ordinary homes until its residents gradually begin to experience unsettling events. However, while this is certainly the case in Danielewski’s house, the events that unsettle Navidson and his family are not the usual creaking sounds or glimpse of what Vidler later refers to as “alien spirits” (17) but are the house’s violation of fundamental laws of physics and the absence of any stable sense of geography. The unsettling events that occur in Navidson’s house begin with a minor discrepancy regarding its measurements. He discovers that the house’s internal dimensions exceed those of its exterior by one quarter of an inch, undermining the basic assumption that the outside encompasses the inside. Indeed, Navidson’s brother, Tom, refers to the occurrence as “a goddamn spatial rape” (55). The house continues to obliterate our basic assumptions of everyday reality as additional rooms start to appear, which, as Zampanò notes, “while not exactly sinister or even threatening, … still destroyed any sense of security or well-being” (28). When Navidson and his family return from a trip to Seattle, they discover that a dark room of “[no] more than five feet wide and at most four feet long” with “perfectly smooth and almost pure black” (28) walls has emerged between the master bedroom and the children’s room. We are told that “such an implausible piece of reality could force anyone to question their own perceptions” (28). Eventually, a dark, doorless hallway emerges in the living room leading to an endless labyrinth which constitutes a similar “alteration of space beyond physical possibility” (Shastri 99). The labyrinth consists of an infinite number of “[h]allways, corridors [and] rooms” (359), and as it grows, the internal geographies become increasingly larger than the physical space they can actually occupy. Anything dropped in the labyrinth “only slips into darkness” (46), and compasses do not work there so it is impossible to navigate; the text asserts that “the needle never stays still. North it seems has no authority there” (90) and that “direction no longer matters” (433). The labyrinth is also shape-shifting, meaning its internal architecture constantly changes, expanding and contracting at random, and turning very short distances into mile-long treks. Zampanò notes that “those terrifying shifts […] can in a matter of moments reconstitute a simple path into an extremely complicated one” (69). Rather, Zampanò suggests that the house’s mutations are a projection of the individual’s “psyche” (21) because each person who enters the labyrinth appears to experience it differently:

Due to the wall-shifts … any way out remains singular and applicable only to those on that path at that particular time. … While some portions of the house, like the Great Hall for instance, seem to offer a communal experience, many inter-communicating passageways encountered by individual members, even with only a glance, will never be re-encountered by anyone else again. (115-118)

The implication that the house’s mutations “reflect the psychology of those who enter it” (165) is reflective of the postmodern realization that the discourses and structures we impose on the world to create order and meaning in it are in fact human-made rather than natural because it suggests that those within the labyrinth must “create” their own systems of measurement when attempting to navigate this space. Zampanò proposes that the labyrinth functions “like an immense isolation tank” (330) in that the individual must construct their own sense of time, temperature, and meaning: “[d]eprived of light, change in temperature and any sense of time, … the individual begins to create his own … [and] projects more and more … personality on those bare walls and vacant hallways” (330). The reason Danielewski’s house is unsettling then is because it draws attention to the artificiality and arbitrary nature of discourses such as systems of measurement and time. It suggests that an inch is a specific length and a minute consists of sixty seconds because humanity has decided so. Indeed, the quantity of an inch or the duration of a minute is defined by human-made systems such as the Imperial System and The International System of Quantities. Thus, an inch or a minute could just as easily have been longer or shorter. The way in which the individual must project meaning, or what Zampanò refers to as “personality,” onto the bare walls and empty space of the labyrinth is further evocative of this idea that the dominant features of reality and systems of meaning are invented by us, that reality is a blank space that we must impose meaning on. The novel’s depiction of the house then, appears representative of the disturbing, postmodern idea that no objective truth exists, that meaning is multiple and subjective, and, as Beville suggests, it is futile to search for meaning in the postmodern world (48).

It is this characteristic of absence that haunts the house throughout the text. Indeed, the labyrinth is constantly described as a “blank” space consisting of bare walls and emptiness:

The walls are endlessly bare. Nothing hangs on them. They are without texture. Even to the keenest eye or most sentient fingertip, they remain unreadable. You will never find a mark there. No trace survives. The walls obliterate everything. They are permanently absolved of all record. Oblique, forever obscure and unwritten. Behold the perfect pantheon of absence. (423)

Zampanò describes the labyrinth as “endlessly repetitive. Hallways, corridors, rooms, over and over again. … A lifeless, objectless, soulless place. Godless too” (359). He says, “Nothing there provides a reason to linger. In part because not one object, let alone fixture or other manner of finish work has ever been discovered there” (119), and he provides a twenty-five page list of everything not in the labyrinth, from return air vents and windows to a telephone. This pervasive absence is in direct opposition to more conventional haunted house tales which usually contain numerous Gothic motifs including flickering candles, ghosts, monstrous characters, skeletons, and moving objects such as statues or portraits (Botting 5). Even in earlier postmodern-Gothic or haunted house tales such as The Shining, the central frightening space, the Overlook Hotel, is full of menacing entities such as the Grady Twins, the old woman in room 237, and the gallons of blood that pour out of the elevator. In House of Leaves, by contrast, it is the way in which there appears to be nothing lurking in the shadows that frightens. For instance, towards the end of the text, we are cautioned that there is nothing in the house rather than warned of something specific: “if one day you find yourself passing by that house, don’t stop, don’t slow down, just keep going. There is nothing there. Beware” (4). As Katherine Hayles notes:

Only if we read “nothing” as a substantive does this passage make sense, a negation converted into the looming threat of something, although it is impossible to say what unless it be negation itself, working to obliterate our everyday assumptions about reality. (788)

This idea of the house being haunted by nothing or “nothingness” is further emphasized in the climax of “The Navidson Record.” Navidson, making the clichéd error made by most Gothic and horror protagonists, decides to explore the location of terror by himself. Instead of encountering a ghost or terrifying apparition that would conventionally be lurking in the basement, however, he encounters a “grotesque vision of absence” (464), and the structures and discourses we use to make sense of reality such as time and geography literally start to disappear:

as he turns to go back, he finds the window has vanished along with the room. All that remains is the ashblack slab upon which he is standing, now apparently supported by nothing: darkness below, above, and of course darkness beyond. It is only a matter of time before all of Navidson’s flashlights expire. … As for the three flares Navidson had been carrying with him, he soon uses them … Who knows how many hours or days pass between each flare. Navidson’s watch stopped functioning years ago. But as he freely admits, he no longer cares about the meaning of a minute or even a week. … The first flare drops straight down, illuminating nothing but itself, never reaching a bottom, ultimately winking out in the darkness. The second flare, however, does not fall but floats instead … he is slowly becoming more and more disorientated. … Is he floating, falling, or rising? Is he right side up, upside down or on his side? Eventually, however, … Navidson accepts that the questions are sadly irrelevant. (464-65)

It is precisely because of these characteristics of absence and refusal of all logic then that the house can be seen as representative of the postmodern rejection or the “disappearance” of metanarratives and overarching concepts of reality and of the resulting sense of emptiness experienced by the postmodern subject.

This anxiety is further represented by the “beast” that apparently haunts the labyrinth because it is strongly suggested that the creature is a fabrication concocted by individuals within this blank space in a desperate attempt to impose meaning on it. According to Slocombe in his essay “‘This Is Not For You’: Nihilism and the House that Jacques Built,” the characters of House of Leaves seek to find something within the labyrinth because they “cannot tolerate the absence it signifies” (97). This relates to writings on nihilism and the postmodern condition such as those of Fredrich Nietzsche and Kurt Vonnegut, which suggest that we impose meaning on life to conceal its meaninglessness (Pratt) and that we create provisional truths or “comforting lies” which “give life meaning in a meaningless world” (Praxmarer 37). For instance, Nietzsche claims that nihilism originates in man’s inability to accept the reality that truth is man-made (Slocombe, Nihilism 30), while Reddy notes when discussing Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle that “[t]he universe [man] finds himself is an arbitrary and ever-changing system of meaningless strings, which man, through an act of his creative imagination, has to define as meaningful” (11). Slocombe’s analysis of Thomas Pynchon’s work and the postmodern image of the desert leads to a similar conclusion:

Pynchon’s analysis of this human response is telling: We are obsessed with building labyrinths, where before there was open plain and sky. We cannot abide that openness: it is terror to us. … The response to the desert is to construct meaning: in the face of absence, we desire presence. The act of drawing ever more complex patterns on a blank sheet is tantamount to placing meaning on that which has no meaning. … to construct meaning where there is none. (Nihilism 87-88)

In contrast to traditional Gothic novels and haunted house tales then, which typically feature characters plagued by monstrous creatures, Danielewski’s characters appear to be searching for monsters in order to represent this postmodern desire for presence in the face of absence (not unlike Kubrick’s frustrated Jack Torrance in The Shining). Certainly, there are numerous indications in the text that the beast is imaginary. Critics such as Hayles have observed that the beast only “manifests itself through traces which always remain shy of verifiable presence” (Hayles 788) and these traces can be logically explained. For instance, the inimitable growls that issue from the labyrinth are more likely to be the sound of its walls rearranging themselves; as noted, the labyrinth is shape-shifting. Similarly, Holloway Robert’s suspicion that the beast is stalking him when he enters the labyrinth can be attributed to Slocombe’s idea of the characters’ desire to read “something” into the labyrinth. When the labyrinth emerges in his living room, Navidson appoints a team of professional spelunkers to explore this space and documents these explorations. In Exploration #4, spelunkers Holloway, Kirby “Wax” Hook, and Jed Leeder explore the labyrinth, and Holloway grows increasingly frightened, murders Jed, and commits suicide. Whereas many critics have attributed Holloway’s descent into madness to a fear of a savage beast, it appears instead to be the endless and “utter blankness” (119) of the labyrinth that affects him, and the “beast,” by contrast, seems an attempt to find something, anything, within this endless, blank space. Indeed, the text describes the “beast” as “the creature Holloway hunts” (334, emphasis mine), and in the tape he makes of his final moments, having shot Jed and wandered off into the dark, we are told that “he slumps in the corner to wait” for the beast and calls out for it, “scream[ing] obscenities [in]to the void: ‘Bullshit! Bullshit! Just try and get me you motherfucker’” (337). When no monster surfaces, the text notes that, “as the minutes creak by, his energy dips” and Holloway’s “words [come] out like a sigh – sad and lost” (337). When he turns the camera on himself moments before his death, he again appears to want to encounter the beast, and it seems to be the absence of the creature, and everything else, which drives him to suicide:

“There’s something here. I’m sure of it now.” … “It’s following me. No, it’s stalking me.” … “But it won’t strike. It’s just out there waiting. I don’t know what for. But it’s near now, waiting for me, waiting for something. I don’t know why it doesn’t […] Oh god […] Holloway Roberts. Menomonie, Wisconsin. [chambering a round in his rifle] Oh God” … (335)

We are told that, “[i]n that place, the absence of an end finally became his own end” (337) and that Holloway repeatedly stated his name, birthplace, university qualification, and profession during his final hours in order to combat the absolute emptiness of the labyrinth, or as Slocombe says of the text when discussing it in relation to nihilism, “to fill the void of silence that would otherwise be there” (“This Is Not For You” 100):

where he moves leads nowhere. … he has … recognized the complete hopelessness of the situation. Repeat[ing] his identity seems the only mantra [that] offers any consolation: “Holloway Roberts. … Bachelor’s from U. Mass.” It is almost as if he believes preserving his identity on video tape can somehow hold what he is powerless to prevent: those endless contours of darkness stealing the Holloway from himself. “I’m Holloway Roberts.” he insists. “Born in Menomonie, … Bachelor’s from U. Mass. Explorer, professional hunter” … (334)

Moreover, Holloway’s attempt to preserve his identity from “the endless contours of darkness” and prevent himself from disappearing with everything else in the labyrinth is further representative of the anxiety produced by postmodern skepticism. As noted, postmodern theory asserts that human identity, like our dominant discourses and metanarratives, is a construct that is culturally produced, that what we say is merely an arrangement of ready-formed linguistic structures, and that our thoughts, personality, and behaviour are shaped by ideologies and conventions. This realization results in a loss of self and identity for the postmodern subject. This postmodern crisis of identity is often represented in Gothic-postmodernist works though themes of possession or “fluid identity” (Beville 11), as we have seen in Twin Peaks, where identity is presented as arbitrary and characters metamorphose into one another at random. Holloway’s death in House of Leaves furthers this idea, however, in that his body literally disappears once he has shot himself. Similar to the way in which all sense of time and geography vanish when Navidson enters the innermost part of the labyrinth, we are told that “[f]ingers of blackness slash across the lighted wall and consume Holloway. … the last thing heard [was] the sound [of] Holloway ripped out of existence” (338).

Furthermore, reading about the house has a similar effect on Johnny Truant, the editor of “The Navidson Record.” As noted, Johnny is a traumatized individual who discovers the manuscript in Zampanò’s apartment after Zampanò dies and sets out to assemble it into a coherent document. Not only does Johnny cite sources and translate foreign passages, but he also adds a series of footnotes that narrate his experience of editing the manuscript. These footnotes detail Johnny’s troubled childhood, his alcohol- and adrenaline-steeped life, and, most significantly, the trauma he experiences from reading the disturbing content of “The Navidson Record.” He has recurring dreams of the “blackness” (503) which parallels with “the unnatural darkness” (61) of the labyrinth he reads about and places measuring tapes across his walls to “tell for sure if there are any shifts” (296) in the dimensions of his room. Similar to Navidson and Holloway then, what frightens Johnny is the house’s eradication of the dominant entities of reality. Having finished editing “The Navidson Record,” Johnny warns the reader that once we read it:

you’ll suddenly realize things are not how you perceived them to be at all. … It will get so bad … no matter where you are, in a crowded restaurant or on some desolate street or even in the comforts of your own home, you’ll watch yourself dismantle every assurance you ever lived by. (xxii-xxiii)

According to Alan Gibbs, Johnny describes his trauma here as consisting of “a series of unsettling phenomena which trigger feelings that things to which one was accustomed have altered disconcertingly” (110). We can again relate this to the anxiety produced by the postmodern view of everything as artificial. Johnny’s previously held certainties are undermined (“you’ll watch yourself dismantle every assurance you ever lived by”), and he eventually suspects that everything, including himself, is a product of the manuscript’s inventions. For instance, he fears that his memories, past experiences, and personal histories are, as Katherine Cox says, “nothing more than a series of words” (9):

my sense of self [is] derealized and depersonalized, … I actually believe … that this thing has created me … I am nothing more than the matter of some other voice, … possessing me with histories I should never recognize as my own; inventing me, defining me, directing me until finally every association I can claim as my own … is relegated to nothing; forcing me to face the most terrible suspicion of all, that all of this has just been made up … (326)

Johnny’s fears that his identity “has just been made up” and that his thoughts and actions are outside of his control (“some other voice … defining me, directing me”) can also be read in relation to the postmodern loss of self and identity in an age of pervasive skepticism, evoking arguments made by theorists such as Butler and Foucault that one’s identity, thoughts, and opinions are socially-produced constructs rather than natural facts (Louwen 8). This idea is further evoked by Johnny through the formal structure of the novel and its multiple layers of mediated discourse, which echoes Barthes assertion that one merely rearranges ready-formed linguistic structures into narratives when writing rather than producing something original or innate: Johnny’s writing largely consists of transcribing Zampanò’s manuscript, that is, literally reproducing someone else’s words. Also significant in Johnny’s narrative is his remark that his memory is “built upon story after story, so many, how many?, stories high, building what? and why?” (297-98) in that the motif of building here, like the house, can be seen as metaphorical of the postmodern realization that identity is “constructed.” Here, Danielewski is in keeping with the American tradition of having houses reflect not only the social structures in which characters are entrapped but also their psychological structures (Chandler 3). Like our dominant discourses, the house and its inhabitants are empty constructs. Indeed, Johnny informs the reader that, having read House of Leaves, we will be fighting “with everything you’ve got not to face the thing you most dread, what is now, what will be, what has always come before, the creature you truly are, the creature we all are, buried in the nameless black of the name” (xxiii), which parallels with what critics such as Weinstein have described as “the empty shell called self,” meaning, the “nothingness” postmodernists believe to lie beneath all forms of identity (Weinstein 4).

Additionally, House of Leaves (as well as the earlier examples of postmodern-Gothic, The Shining and Twin Peaks) appears to alter the conventions of the genre in terms of the gender of the narrative’s protagonist as well as its antagonist. According to Fred Botting in Gothic, among the major motifs in Gothic novels is that of “women being chased along dark corridors” (5, emphasis mine). By contrast, both House of Leaves and the preceding examples feature male protagonists and “horror victims,” haunted by nothingness and by turns searching for monsters. As noted, horror tends to reflect current anxieties, and this shift in gender dynamics appears significant in regard to the postmodern incredulity towards metanarratives, the decline in grand narratives largely made by, and made to benefit, straight white males, or what we can call society’s “dominant groups.” In an era that, quite rightly, sees the voices of minorities becoming increasingly prominent and valued and that, in turn, sees the constant questioning of and skepticism towards the discourses of dominant groups (in particular, postmodernity’s exposure of the relationship between discourse and power in the construction of values and norms), it appears fitting for postmodern-Gothic to feature white men haunted by the very nothingness produced by the pervasive skepticism towards them. Indeed, one need not look further for a recent example than the victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 US election and the “angry white man’s” anxiety surrounding the changing face of power in America (Filipovic). Alternatively, texts with female or minority protagonists that focus on the nothingness produced by postmodernity’s skepticism (often non-Western fiction; for example, Nagaru Tanigawa’s Haruhi Suzumiya, a Japanese series of light novels, manga, and anime) are not placed squarely within the horror genre but can instead be classified as contemporary “adventure tales,” with the female lead often regarding this “nothingness” as an exciting opportunity for new experiences and innovation and the male secondary characters again regarding such phenomena with fear.

Through close examination of Danielewski’s House of Leaves, it is therefore evident that the American haunted house formula has been revised in order to reflect postmodern anxieties. Whereas the rise of Enlightenment rationalism spawned tales of haunted houses filled with numerous terrors, the collapse of these master narratives appears to have emptied the haunted house of said terrors. The haunted house and its residents are no longer plagued by ghosts, apparitions, or “something” that terrifies. Rather, the haunted house is now empty, its (seemingly male) residents terrified of “nothing” and of the apparently unsettling reminder that accompanies this nothingness: the postmodern assertion that once-overarching concepts of truth, reality, and identity are artificial and that life is essentially meaningless.


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Image credit: “Connex labyrinth” from fdecomite, via flickr, is licensed under CC BY 2.0.