In some ways this book was doomed from the start for me. Don’t get me wrong, I loved it. I gave it 5 stars on Goodreads.* House of Leaves has been on my To Read list since I first heard about it back in high school. Experimental horror fiction is 100% up my alley. But it’s an extremely hyped up novel. I’ve had multiple people tell me it was too scary to finish, and others tell me the horror in it still haunts them. So the expectations I had couldn’t really be met. As a lifelong voracious consumer of all things horror (or at least things very morbid and weird), something needs to be very disturbing to leave that type of impression on me. Especially after watching Martyrs (the film that made me quit watching horror movies for 2 years), not a lot of things reach that standard. There were without a doubt some brilliant and terrifying moments in HoL, but the nature of the experimental narrative caused it to interrupt it’s own scares. Horror needs a certain sense of immediacy to be truly effective. So in terms of terror, it was only the concept that was scary to me as opposed to the content. That’s disappointment the first.
The real disappointment for me was gender. All culture is a product of its society, and therefore inherently problematic. What I’m saying is I wasn’t expecting a feminist masterpiece. But for years all these people talk about how brilliant this text is, with no mention of how sexist it is. The sexism above all else really took me out of the story. Now I understand that the two narratives are told by two distinctly unreliable cis male narrators. But during my reading of the text, regardless of the somewhat satirical nature of the text (at least in its portrayal of academia), I found it impossible to tell whether or Mark Z. Danielewski was conscious of the gender dynamics at play or if he just wrote in thoughtless sexism. Even someone capable of creating such a complex novel is also still equally capable of regurgitating the sexism society taught them instead of questioning it.
When reading certain novels, it’s more clear to see what the author intended or was conscious of. I’ll always defend Bret Easton Ellis’s novels, in spite of how deeply problematic of a person he is, because I’ve always had the sense that it was faily transparent that his characters were not people to admire or sympathize with. Similarly reading A Clockwork Orange it’s also apparent that Alex is a character to be fascinated by but also despise. The extremely controversial Lars Von Trier film Antichrist even leaves a substantial amount of room for interpretation, which has left many (including myself) to do feminist readings of it. HoL doesn’t read that way. Especially with the Appendixes of the text, which expand on Zampano’s and Johnny Truant’s back story. While this could be viewed as merely an expansion of the world of the text, it’s also an effort to bring more life to his male narrators through women and other means. Given the portrayal of women in the ‘story’ aspects of the novel and the further humanizing of the male characters in the Appendixes, it’s very difficult to separate the author’s intention from his characters’ sexism.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, some brief background on the novel. Then I will break down the sexism into a few distinct categories. Here’s the summary I wrote for another post I will be doing on HoL, comparing it to another text:
House of Leaves is an experimental novel that somehow manages to be a romantic horror and somewhat satirical in it’s pseudo-academic format. The novel is essentially like next level Inception. The way the story is presented is in multiple layers. Johnny Truant, a 25 year old lost in drugs and sex, finds a recently deceased old man’s bizarre narrative and becomes totally consumed by it. Johnny readily admits he’s a liar and slowly reveals a history involving trauma and mental illness (further challenging his own narrative). This old man’s writings tell the story of The Navidson Record, a documentary following the Navidson family and their ever expanding house, and the subsequent reaction from the academic world. The old man Zampano however was blind and had to get other people to write out all his ideas. In Johnny’s world, there is no Navidson family and the story is entirely fictitious. What Zampano believed is never made clear. It’s impossible to tell whether or not any of these potential narrators are telling the truth, and if both of the primary narrators are even real. It’s possible that Johnny was created by Zampano, Zampano was created by Johnny, or they were both created by an entirely different fictional narrator who will never be known. This makes the juxtaposition with documentary and academia even more intriguing, because these supposed pillars of truth are used instead to support the lies.
There are three main ways to examine sexism in this novel. The first is by looking at Johnny Truant’s interactions with women, especially his violent misogyny towards the end of the novel. The second is of course to look at the other narrator, Zampano, and his terrible treatment of Karen. The final aspect will be picking apart the Appendixes I’ve mentioned previously.
Disclaimers: This interpretation of the novel is based solely off of my reading it. I haven’t scoured interviews, reviews, or other analyses. Trigger warning for brief mentions of sexual assault and sexist slurs.
Not an official cover. Found here.
Johnny Truant and Disposable Women
So much of Johnny’s narrative is geared towards his sexual conquests, his ambivalent feelings towards his mother, and his obsession with one woman in particular.
In his introduction he mentions two women who are the sources of some of his obsessions. Johnny is prone to obsessive behaviour, as it later becomes more clear that his family’s tendency towards mental illness has affected him as well. Women tend to be the focal point of lots of his unhealthy behaviours. Two of the ones that have the most significant impact on his story are mentioned within the first few pages of the text.
The first is Clara English. She’s seldom mentioned throughout the novel, and her tragic story isn’t revealed until much later. Clara is a dark cloud that hangs over the text. In the introduction she’s simply someone he’s “getting over” (xii). She’s painted in the same shallow way he views all women. He says she told him “she wanted to date someone at the top of the food chain” (xii), which implies that he’s not and he’s harbouring some resentment towards her for it.
Clara’s story is revealed on page 264. She started out as a hookup, until some stupid joke he made ended in her crying. She then revealed to him that she had been raped. Afterwards she “hated him for knowing” and showed him her “well practiced meanness”. He tries to be empathetic, but from the introduction it’s clear he’s unable to entirely do so. Johnny thinks about her still, her “terrified gaze”, and wonders if she was ever able to heal. Then on the next page he comes up with a revised background for the list of the women Lude hooked up with to include imagined histories of rape and abuse.
In some ways Clara haunts him is that she challenges his view of women and his own behaviour towards them. She was a woman who he perhaps cared about on some level, someone hurt by the same kind of misogyny he espouses taken to a more violent conclusion.
His relationship with Thumper can best be described by two particular passages. The first is where she’s discussed in the introduction.He nicknames he Thumper based off of a Thumper tattoo she has just shy of “The Happiest Place On Earth” (xii). A couple pages later he talks about how he “rented Bambi and got a hard on” (xv) because he was so hung up on her. She was “something else and sure beat the hell out of Clara English” (xv). She’s introduced as his unnamed obsession, equated with a fictional cartoon character.
The second comes about a hundred pages in to The Navidson Record. At one point he describes Thumper as “uninhabited” (105). Afterward he corrected himself to say “uninhibited”, but the inclusion of the ‘mistake’ is obviously intentional. She’s unihabited to him in multiple ways. The first is that he has not, and never does sleep with her. Despite how abject and unhinged he becomes (he stops bathing, his teeth start to rot, he doesn’t sleep or eat much) he always somehow manages to sleep with all the beautiful women he encounters. I chalked this up to an unreliable narration and his fantasies made real through story more than anything else. But Thumper is the one woman he really wants and can hardly bring himself to even talk to. Part of that is rooted in his ‘mommy issues’. She’s an older woman (and a mother) who represents some level of perfection and purity to him because he doesn’t know her and hasn’t had sex with her, and he’s scared to shatter that image. Furthermore, he doesn’t even know her real name. Even when he does find out near the end of the novel, he never tells the readers. She’s a place he’ll never go. A little island of sunshine in his bleak days at the tattoo shop. The more disturbing implication of the uninhabited comment comes from the fact that in the following paragraphs he discusses with her other women in his life, first mentioning Clara English. To him Clara was inhabited in a way he can’t reconcile, and so she haunts him.
Thumper will continue to pop up throughout the text, as the object of his affection though he refuses to ever make her into something other than an object. She is the only woman (besides his mother, I didn’t pick up on anything particularly Oedipal in my reading) to remain pure to him. He doesn’t even go to see her strip. All other women to him are essentially sex objects he passes the time with, which he describes in detail. None of them have significance to him beyond how they affect his story sexually.
The most horrific moment in the entire novel comes from his last confrontation with Kyrie and the Gdansk man. Kyrie was a woman he briefly hooked up with when her mean (and possibly abusive) boyfriend was out of town. She tried to continue seeing him, but he turned her down. So she tells him what happened, which leads him to turn his violent temper on Johnny and his friend Lude. After Lude dies from overdose, related to the beating he took from the Gdansk man, Johnny is barely able to resist his own violent urges in their last confrontation. He beats Gdansk much in the same way he beat Lude, and then turns his rage on Kyrie. Johnny says he has “already taken her” (497) to a dark room where he plans to rape her while he strangles her, and then dismember her body. He says the “Gdansk man dies” (497) and “soon Kyrie will too” (497). At this point I had to put down the book for a second. I was shocked by the abrupt and violent misogyny of this moment. I hadn’t been expecting it. It’s revealed several pages later that this never happened. The Gdansk man lived and he never touched Kyrie. But his visceral desires in that moment shook me.
Even though it only happened in his head, this really was the last nail in the coffin for me with Johnny. I never found him unlikeable in a likeable way. For me he was always a character I could never get into, and I found his interruptions in the narrative to largely just be a distraction from the better story.
Karen Green, Zampano’s Frigid Woman and Academia’s ‘Slut’
The better story for me was Zampano’s The Navidson Record. Despite the fact that most of the characters never ascended past tropes, I was invested in what happened to them. Not to mention this is where the actual horror comes into play.
A quick side note before I delve into Karen’s place in HoL. While all of Zampano’s readers may not be women, the ones most significant to the novel are. Women function as the vehicle through which he sees the world, and the tools he uses to write his narrative. They’re never given substantial agency beyond this. Women in virtually all aspects of this story are only significant in how they matter to the men they interact with. He’s also mentioned as being a lonely old man hung up on various women who are never seen or given backstory. Which isn’t a huge deal, because not every character can be the centre of a universe. But in the larger context of sexism in the novel it’s just another example of how women are more or less invisible except in their relation to men.
Karen Green is Will Navidson’s partner (his common law wife who refuses to get ‘paper married’) and the mother of their children. She was a model, but quit and focused on the raising her family. It’s not made entirely clear if she’s a stay at home mom or if she does other work as well. Since Will was an absentee father, a man more interested in pursuit of his career and his art (he’s a photojournalist), she spends a lot of time raising her kids alone. It’s put an intense strain on their marriage, which is why they moved to this house to try to fix things.
For a large portion of the text Karen’s characterization fluctuates between passive, frightened woman in need of saving, and a nagging, frigid wife who holds Will back. In the former she’s extremely claustrophobic. She “freezes at the threshold” (57), unable to enter they mysterious unending hallway in her house even though her children are screaming. Will is the one who goes in. She never goes in during the main part of the story. Karen anxiously tries to avoid the hall (and therefore the adventure of the novel) until she is reluctantly dragged in to help with the radio. Her fear is so great that in the end Will has to save her from her paralysis, nearly losing his daughter and ultimately losing his brother because she couldn’t save herself. Karen’s sister alleges this extreme claustrophobia is the result of horrific rape and abuse caused by their father. While trauma undeniably affects survivors in significant ways, Karen is falling into the trope many female characters are put into, where rape is the central motivator in what they do or do not do. This likely contributes to the latter aspect of her characterization, where she makes Will choose between his career and his family. This happens both in him getting to the house, and then making him stay out of the hallways while others explore it (until he has no choice but to go in). Karen “made it clear that Navidson must either give up his professional habits or lose his family” (10). She makes him feel emasculated by forcing him to have other men go in and explore the mystery, claim the glory. This is after she more or less stopped sleeping with him due to her intense claustrophobia. While this could have been a great opportunity to explore the effects of PTSD, it was used to belittle and dehumanize her. Karen was criticized by the ‘academics’ (Zampano) for being too needy and too dependent on Will, as though it is weak to depend on one’s partner and have certain expectations in the relationship. Nonetheless the tone of the novel is always against Karen, even though Danielewski has allegedly (according to Wikipedia, I can’t find a source) called HoL a love story.
Between these two images of Karen she is also portrayed as a wishy-washy partner, who either seduces other men and has affairs or easily falls to the whims of the men attracted to her. She’s both the virgin and the whore in this story. While Will never condemns her for any choices she’s made, Zampano’s chorus of academics go so far as to call her a slut. This part is very clearly the old man’s bias. I’m no academic expert, but in my 6 years as an undergrad I never came across an academic source, or even serious piece of journalism/critcism that outright called someone a slut. In the novel she does kiss another character on camera, but the sympathy never lies with her for all her struggles with Will and the house.
Eventually she begins to lose some of this passivity. She edits and sends out portions of Will’s documentary. She interviews others for their opinion. In her most selfless moment she enters the black void of the house to save Will, knowing she could lose herself in it. But it’s still all about Will. The only thing she does that isn’t for or about Will is leave him and that house to take her kids to her mother’s place. Though her and Will end up together again later, when he is more or less forced to retire due to the injuries he sustained while lost inside the house.
There are contradictions to my argument in the text. On page 11 Zampano tries to “demonstrate how much Navidson values Karen”, and later on the same page describes her need as an “almost bewildering dependence”. The inclusion of both statements on one page suggest consciousness of the gender dynamic at play. A few pages later the unspecified narrator of The Navidson Record document claims “the rabid speculation over Karen’s infidelities seem driven by a principally sexist culture, especially since so little attention was paid to Navidson’s role” (16). But then the text continues to repeat that pattern. Whether or not that is an equally conscious and critical choice as the first example, I can’t say. Regardless I found it impossible to read this text and not be incredibly frustrated by the treatment of Karen.
While a woman with all these qualities isn’t inherently problematic, the issue is that so many women in pop culture are characterized in similar two dimensional ways rather than being allowed to have their own complex stories. And once again within the context of the novel, it fits a troubling pattern. Karen perhaps is the embodiment of things Zampano resents in women, or maybe Danielewski just didn’t do her justice and didn’t realize she deserved more. Short of asking him to explain his motivations in depicting her like this there’s no way to get a definitive answer.
Women For Men in the Apendixes
Is it possible to love something so much, you imagine it wants to destroy you only because it has denied you?
-Appendix B./Bits, page 544
This will be the shortest section, because there’s not as much meat to the Appendixes as there is the rest of the text.
For Zampano there’s just little bits of evidence that support previous arguments I’ve made. Appendix B (“Bits”) contains scattered notes from Zampano that don’t fit into the narrative of The Navidson Record. They offer a bit more insight into Zampano’s romantic view of the world. He talks about the regret over past relationships, “the angel of his youth” (544) which became “the devil of his maturity” (544). Essentially he’s got some hang ups over his choices relating to women, now that he’s hold and without a partner. A bit written two years later he complains about one of his readers, “that girl” (544) who “can read” (544) and “can flirt” (544). He doesn’t appear to have a high opinion of this woman and considers “getting rid of her” (545). There are two more brief notes where he gets angry with his readers, one distinctly female and the other not specified. At this stage in Zampano’s life women were tools for him to survive, reminders of his past regrets, and places to channel his frustration with life as it is now.
The biggest and most interesting chunk in the Appendixes is from Appendix 2 E.: The Three Attic Whalestoe Letters. This is the collection of letters Johnny received from his mother Pelafina while she was in a mental institution (where she remained until her death) for an unspecified disorder. In total they go on for 56 pages and eventually became a subsequent novella titled simple The Whalestoe Letters. The letters are compelling because of Pelafina’s writing style and her ever changing mental state. But they are simultaneously problematic, because they exist in the story to give Johnny more background and explain who he is. The letters also perpetuate the eccentric, always manic, yet smart and creative stereotype of a mentally ill person. After reading the letters I definitely have more insight into Johnny and all his ups and downs. However this is also the problem. Women exist on their own, not to serve as vehicles for men’s stories. The ableist stereotype is more or less icing on the sexist cake.
Given these fairly overt examples of sexism in House of Leaves, a novel I was expecting so much more from, it was a hard book for me to enjoy at times. Because of the uniqueness with the type of horror and the structure of the novel, I still love it. The Navidson Record is such a great story, and I would absolutely love to see it turned into a real movie. But my love for this book is still strained. House of Leaves is a novel I’m hesitant to recommend considering how conflicted I feel about it. It’s one I’ll have to revisit in a few years. All this being said, I want to check out more of his work. Even if only to try to answer my questions on his perspective when it comes to gender.
Did I miss anything substantial? I hadn’t intended to write about this book when I began reading it, so as a result I don’t have detailed notes or page numbers for any of the things I’ve talked about here. Thank fuck there’s an index to help with some of that. Tweet me if you’ve got more. @AthenaGenevieve
House of Leaves Minimalist Poster by Justin Fetters, found on fuckyeahhouseofleaves.tumblr.com
*Hello internet, welcome to my bad jokes that may or may not translate well in writing.