Before starting this post, I went back to the first part of this analysis and asked myself why I said that ‘critics who try to analyze The Beginner’s Guide tend to project their personal experiences in parallel with the game’. Arnold Bennet once said that “We are supposed to be reasonable but we are much more instinctive than reasonable. And the less we reflect, the less reasonable we shall be.”
It’s obvious to me now that disassociating from the typical way of reviewing this game (i.e. refusing to judge based on emotional impact) does take an important part away. Namely, that emotional impact that I was hoping to sidestep. I understand that trying to take an objective stance to such an emotional game does little to separate me from other critics, but at the same time, I won’t discredit how useful an approach can be. I believe this because I know that The Beginner’s Guide has no definite facts to it, and relies on the opinions of a narrator that frequently lies. In this specific case, a logical approach to a game with such an unreliable narrative provides a review that is unique those who would analyze by relating their own experiences to the work. The separation it allows gives me a chance to look at the game for what its core ideas are, rather than how I reacted emotionally to those ideas.
However, this line of thinking fails me when I try to discern exactly what House of Leaves is about. I am almost embarrassed to admit that the time I spent brooding about it surpassed how long it took me to read the book in the first place. One would think that enough mulling over this matter would allow me to prepare a small review of it, but those that believe this to be true may also want to look at the title this blog and decide for themselves whether or not I’m good at planning.
Despite this, I have managed to pull two questions out of these moments of dead-end musing. These questions are
How effective is ‘fear of the unknown’?
What compels a person to lend out a book in the hopes that the person will keep the book forever?
The quick answers to these questions are “Very” and “Paranoia”, but for clarity’s sake, I’ll go a little further.
Often being touted as the stronger and more reliable half of fundamental reason, deductive reasoning does owe some of its fame to pop culture. Mainstream media is cluttered with literary detectives that boast their “deductive skills” above all other forms of intellect and are treated as cruel but powerful beings because of it. Every show that devotes itself to problem-solving teams always has that one emotional detached “voice of reason” to counter the hot-headed leader and Spocks are so frequent in fiction because without them every Kirk would have managed to impregnate a planet and blow up half a galaxy before noon. These unaffected and collected cool guys provide a refreshing fantasy for those that wish they could keep their emotions bottled up just to resemble those respectable logical pariahs. If you hadn’t already picked up on it from parts 1 and 2, I’m guilty of this daydream too. Logic can seem a calm alternative when the world is so passionately destructive. But the fact remains that reason is only a cover for human emotions, and usually cannot replace them. Given this revelation, it makes sense that in a situation where deductive reasoning does not work, an emotional response soon follows.
This is why I think “fear of the unknown” is as effective as it is. Fear of the unknown stems from the idea that when proven rules of nature and the universe cannot be applied to a threatening situation, panic takes over. Various events in history that have led to bloodshed, persecution, and general mania can be linked to a group of people being so afraid of something they couldn’t or refused to understand that they used their only tried and true method of eliminating it: violence.
In the same way that The Beginner’s Guide is a criticism of inductive reasoning, I believe House of Leaves bases its horror around the idea that deductive reasoning cannot save you. It produces the idea that out there in the world, there exist monsters of which we cannot even begin to comprehend, and when we try to, our common methods of categorizing fall apart. This wouldn’t be so bad, as most of the advances modern science come from realizing that our rules are always a little flawed and that we can change these rules to make them more accurate to our universe. But when the thing you’re trying to categorize is 5 ½ minutes to tearing the muscles away from your skeletal system and lining them up like a high school anatomy class, the fear of the unknown starts to make a little more sense.
We can find more specific ways of House of Leaves being a darling combination of fear of the unknown and Metafiction by looking at a character that establishes both as soon as he is introduced: Zampano. The issue of Zampano comes from the various contradictions he presents in the story. Out all the characters in the novel, he makes more sense out of context than he does in the context, but only when you regard Zampano as more than a character, and start to see him also as a plot device. I’ll show you what I mean.
Essentially, there are three levels of fiction that exist with House of Leaves. The first and central narrative is The Navidson Record, which is a documentary detailing this family’s move into a house that… slightly off. This documentary is reviewed by a man named Zampano, who adds in his own interpretations to the film. The manuscript of this review is found after Zampano’s untimely death by a man called Johnny Truant. Truant then goes on to add his own notes to both Zampano’s manuscript and on the documentary itself, while documenting a bit of his own life.
While “The Navidson Record” would already be an interesting enough piece of media, Zampano’s review of it adds so much more in the form of mythology, scientific methods to explain certain phenomena, and instances where Zampano relates the source material to interviews outside of the film itself. But here’s why Zampano’s character doesn’t really work in the context of the story: “The Navidson Record” doesn’t exist. In fact, the material that he does source in his manuscript also doesn’t exist. And he’s blind, which brings up the very obvious question of how a blind man could review a documentary that already does not exist in the same universe as him. This is what Johnny Truant wonders after he finds Zampano dead in his apartment.
The reason that Zampano makes more sense out of the context of the story itself has to do with how he works to advance the plot. Zampano provides a very solid part of this structure of House of Leaves and mimics a sort of archetype that you see in many novels. He is the “Call to Action” character. When Zampano dies and leaves behind this manuscript, he is found by Johnny Truant, and then serves as a doorway between the second and third levels of fiction in this novel. Through Johnny Truant’s perspective of the manuscript, we see how the unstable realities of the house in the documentary can bleed into other “dimensions”. As he continues to read the manuscript, he becomes more paranoid and starts to fear the things that Zampano wrote about fearing, all without either character ever conversing with each other inside the story. While the ending is left rather ambiguous, it’s implied that Johnny’s journey did not end up much better than Zampano’s.
Now, when looking at this stylistic nature of House of Leaves, it’s pretty easy to suspend disbelief because the novel is meant to be a horror/mind-bending kind of novel. Zampano as a character was made with the intention of muddling the story, providing that air of confusion and unclearness that emanates throughout the rest of the “levels”. But does this mean that Zampano has no meaning besides being the vessel for a story that will inevitably carry itself to Truant?
No. There is one other reason why a man would appear dead by mysterious circumstances just for another character to discover his life’s work. Because the circumstances behind in Zampano’s death were very unusual indeed. Zampano died in an apartment filled with claw marks in the wood, and one of Johnny’s first encounters with the manuscript (when he was searching Zampano’s room) has him feeling “something inhuman” in the room with him. As the novel continues, we see that whatever influenced Zampano’s death latched onto Johnny and caused the eventual destruction of his sanity. This overarching theme of never being safe, no matter what level of fiction you’re on, brings me to my next question.
Why in the world would I give away this book? Honestly, all signs would lead to me holding onto this book keeping it safe on a shelf. Going by the way that I’ve spent to possibly a year analyzing it, to how I could go on for thousands of words just gushing about how innovative the author is, one would think that this book would be on my shelf at all time, and an easy reference for the way I’d like to write myself. To these assumptions, I’d like to give you another question: Have you ever gone thrill seeking (extreme sports, cliff diving, getting something a little too spicy at Panera Bread), and tried to reach a new high only to face something too dangerous? Something that’s so above what you are ready for, that it hurts you? Humbles your spirit, gives you the serious perspective that only a practiced professional can acquire? You ever been hurt so badly it warped your personality? Even if the change was minuscule, such as the facial tic, or new favorite phrase, or compulsion to measure the walls and floors of your home?
Teenagers are impressionable people. We soak up ideas and concepts like sponges and consume art faster than any other age demographic. This is the age where kids developed taste, and works of art that influence us when were 13 or 14 lead to those works being memorialized with nostalgia.
If only that had happened to me. At the time when I was waste deep in story-rich, budget-poor webserieses, I stumbled upon a very real type of horror. The kind of horror that plays with your paranoia. When I first started reading House of Leaves, I was fascinated, even excited to see what all the fuss was about. It’s only after understanding what the book really is, that I’ve grown to be fearful of the physical novel. I couldn’t look at it, let alone keep it at my house. The idea that I really don’t know much as much about the world as I think I do terrifies me to this day.
Yet, while that story may have changed my teenage form in a way that other children who saw horror movies too young may understand, I still hold a deep appreciation for the horror genre. As an adult, it’s easy for me to keep my Fourth Wall in check despite how much a film can try to get under it. There’s just a level of stability that comes with growing older, where you realize that a film is just a film and that the real horrors of the world deserve more attention than the monster in your closet. But let me leave you with this:
The first post had me saying that a large amount of the horror I felt from the novel came from the fact that I knew the novel was fiction, and the characters didn’t. I was lying. The biggest horror factor for me is that I have no idea whether or not House of Leaves is really fiction. That impulse that leads me to give away one of my favorite works of art came from the paranoid fear that the events that affected the characters could very well happen to me, all because I have no way of disproving this theory. I cannot compare an apple to a raven and prove that they are all black in the same way that I cannot say that reality will never change on me because ‘this documentary doesn’t exist in my world’ because guess what? It didn’t exist in the novel’s universe, either. The methods of logic that saved me from making a biased review of a short little indie game won’t save me if my paranoia gets the better of me and makes those monsters into a real threat. Even if all the monsters that chased Johnny Truant turned out to be made up, Johnny still has to live with that paranoia. That is what scares me the most.