By: Danny Southward, University of Sheffield
(The following presentation was a precursor to the essay ‘Defeat is Good for Art’ as published by the Studies in Gothic Fiction. For the full article, please see the journal.[i] This transcript is largely unaltered and still retains some of the informal tone [and slippage of spag errors] and so, again, for the slightly more academic and fleshed out version, do check the published article. DS)
I’m going to be exploring two texts: Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves and S, created by J.J Abrams and written by Doug Dorst. Though both present as postmodern gothic, an idea which I will be exploring, I believe that, through the use of ideological oscillation, renewed attempts at sincerity and through an expression of a yearning for movement, that they actually hint at something deeper, a cultural desire for something beyond PM Irony. So, let’s take a look at the first text!
House of Leaves
Published in 2000, Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves is presented primarily, as the novelization of a horror film. Within, the novel analyses and describes the events of ‘The Navidson Report’, a cult horror film that plays on the concept of the haunted house. This narrative string, as described in a pseudo-academic essay by Zampano, will be the main focus of this analysis. The house which Will Navidson and his wife Karen enter is eventually revealed to contain a dark & impossibly large hallway which becomes an inescapable labyrinth to all who enter and it is this hallway, this labyrinth, that, as Joanne Watkiss writes, ‘refuses to be contained and ultimately consumes those attempt to force it to signify’.[ii] Here, playing with the idea of vampirism. The house is seen to ‘feed’ in a loose sense, on Navidson and Holloway, seeming to draw strength from the increasingly weakened explorers of the place. It is not just Holloway + Navidson, but those readers who pick up the text to be consumed with the desire to ‘force [the text] to signify. In Multimodality, Cognition and Experimental Literature, Gibbons refers to the novel’s success as ‘a form of gothic or horror novel’, but more significantly refers to this enamoured readership of the text, stating that ‘[…]the novel’s cult following [are] contributing to online forums, creating websites in homage, and zealously collecting books to which [the novel] intertextually refers’.[iii] An idea further explored by Bronwen Thomas in her ‘Trickster Authors and Tricky Readers on the MZD forums’ essay.[iv] All of which just smacks of ideas of a new Lovecraftian Necronomicon, of this House of Leaves mythos that extends out way beyond the text itself. Danielewski even places Poe within the first collage of the ‘Full-Color Re-mastered’ 2nd ed as an image upon stamps, instantly forcing the phonetic connection between the House of Usher and the House on Ash tree lane. Significantly, though, House of Leaves presents as a found manuscript. As Johnny Truant find and annotates Zampano’s Ms before he himself is edited and we are presented with the results. Though not, unfortunately ‘found in the library of an ancient catholic family in the north of England’
Also a found manuscript text, S is The story of a novel, VM Straka’s Ship of Theseus, found in a library by Jen, a grad student, who passes the book back to the original owner, Eric, a disgraced post-grad. The story follows their story as they begin to unravel the mysteries of Straka’s life and last ever novel. The mystery they reveal is that of a shadow society of writers, ‘The S’ and their cult-war with ‘the new S’ a group of corporate spies determined to stop the original ‘S’. But, in the Ship of Theseus narrative itself, not this marginalia story, we see the sailors of the, presumably, titular ship presented as cultists devoted to their vessel. They saw their mouths shut in a ritualistic ceremony and are seen to degenerate throughout the text, as S. – the main character – sees a sailor as being ‘[…]recently a person, not a freakish salt-crusted mute’ that they have become over time. [v] These sailors are not seen as people at all anymore, but these freakish mutes, making odd noises through the whistles they slot between their stitches. Not only are the cultists devoted to the ship, but [spoilers, sorry] when the ship is destroyed in a cataclysm at sea, they are later seen to be resurrected along with it, hinting at their undead nature as they become zombie pirates. But, as stated, the ship too comes back from its watery grave.
The ship itself is interesting to focus on, too, as S presents us with the idea of a form of mobile gothic ruin; it is an ancient and derelict place, anachronistic to the time period, warped and torn with supernatural denizens and secrets kept in the interior. Not only this, but the ship seems to leach off the life of the sailors- at first- S seems to think that the ship is sustained by the sailors’ mysterious dealings below deck which leave them worn and noticeably drained- it is an undead vampiric ruin, and who is there to captain this vessel of the damned? A man who the man char dubs as “Maelstrom” which, as the annotations explicitly suggest, is a ref to Poe again. (This won’t be the last time that we see him cropping up, either, which is a promise). But what S essentially presents us with another haunted story. Not only in the main narrative is S. haunted by repetitive figures of his past/his shame/his love But the tale of his life is eventually revealed to be a take on the ghost story as the text states [S. is] ‘a man whose physical presence is intangible, but whose influence on the world – on its boundaries and its resources, its agonies and aspirations- is anything but’ [vi]. S. becomes an avenging presence in the novel, a timeless/out of time figure that emerges from his archaic ship, his representation of the past, to disrupt the present. It is a ghost story, but told in a PM metafictional manner.
I have tried to show that both texts define themselves as this PM gothic; drawing from tropes across the gothic, but also with a slight twist. They are both metafictional texts which play with the conventions of the genre, filled with PM ideas of deconstruction, fragmentation, distrust & irony. They take pains to remind the reader that they are constructs, highlighting their artificiality. In S, the reader must navigate a text filled with inserts, with textual interruptions and analysis from the marginalia. They are constantly confronted with questions about the role of the writer; whether militant, ideological or entertainer. In House of Leaves, the reader is often confronted with a convoluted page design, having to physically turn themselves or the text in order to read- and thus breaking them out. They must also confront a section in which Navidson, lost and alone in the dark, must burn a copy of Danielewski’s House of Leaves, reading his own narrative even as it seems to run out. And, like S, must struggle with marginalia interruptions as both Johnny Truant, The Editors and Zampano provide interruptions, analysis and corrections. So, S presents us with a ghost story that is gradually revealed as the origins and tale of the ghost itself. Whilst House of Leaves presents a haunted house that is not haunted by evil humans, or trapped spirits, but the actual house itself. They both create fragmentary texts that play with gothic conventions. But do they belong to that PM period of literary history? Are they just ironically self-assessing? Or is there something more to these re-assessments of the gothic. Again, spoilers. Yes.
I believe, and aim to convince you, that both texts present not as postmodern Gothic metafictions, but metamodern experiments in the gothic. Now metamodernism, very briefly and broadly, stems from the idea that ‘the postmodern years of plenty, pastiche and parataxis are over. In fact […]they have been over for quite a while now’[vii]. And that ‘[Current cultural] trends and tendencies can no longer be explained in terms of the postmodern. They express a (often guarded) hopefulness and (at times feigned) sincerity that hint at another structure of feeling, intimating another discourse.’[viii] This idea of the ‘structure of feeling’ is something to keep in mind as we continue. Both of these quotes, and this exploration of what comes after the end of the dominating movement in culture and the arts of the twentieth century, come from Vermeulen and Akker’s 2010 essay ‘notes on metamodernism’. Within which they identify this ‘structure of feeling’ growing in the arts in the wake of postmodernism. A structure of feeling that is defined, roughly, by three concepts:
- A desire for sincerity & progress/movement, despite knowing that they are unobtainable or without goal
- An oscillation between postmodern irony and modernist enthusiasm, a pendulous swing between these, and innumerable other, points.
- And a yearning for a future- not suggestive of a particular utopia, as our PM training deconstructs such ideas to an impossibility, but a desire for utopias despite this.
A key phrase in this movement is the idea of an ‘informed naivety’ or a belief in something despite of itself. Knowing that something is flawed to the point of failure, but believing and hoping for its success anyway.
Both House of Leaves and S conform to these ideals, to this yearning for more despite knowing better. House of Leaves, as I’ve said, is a novelization of a film- emphasised by the fact that there is a ‘re-mastered full-color’ edition. This is a form not best suited to the exploration of the ‘Navidson report’ which would, surely, work better as a film. And S is a definitively physical book in an increasingly digital age- I mentioned the inserts that jar the reader temporarily out of the narrative, but the book is also designed to replicate the look, design, and feel of a 1960s library book. They are both working in materials not best suited to the fulfilment of their tasks, but they still attempt it anyway. This is a very metamodern concern. As the Notes on Metamodern tell us:
“The reason these [mm] artists haven’t opted to employ methods & materials better suited to their mission or task is that their intention is not to fulfil it, but to attempt to fulfil it, in spite of its ‘unfulfillablness’[ix]
More significantly, both texts place themselves firmly within metamodernism via their experimentation with the sublime. In House of Leaves, the sublime is encountered through that dark labyrinth which opens up in the house. Danielewski uses this space to suggest a return to a Burkean sublime, though replacing those natural elements which inspired it with a pastiche of the manmade. It is a space that replicates the hallways of ‘built’ structures, though these twisting and shifting halls could never have been so. The dark corridors present an uncanny sublime, creating a space which is both familiar and unfamiliarly autonomous, yet which still brings these feelings of terror and awe to the fore. The hallways growl, shift, are seen to actively pursue the explorers, yet are always -still- presented as hallways, inanimate at times, familiar throughout, yet again. They are autonomous and unfamiliar, inanimate and familiar – literally simultaneously heimlich & unheimlich. All of which is emphasised by the enormity and scale that dwarfs Navidson and the crew of explorers, it turns them tiny and insignificant by comparison. They feel, as we as readers do, that sense of terror and awe, but also a desire to conquer, to explore, to understand and- in doing so- gain transcendence. As Zampano summarizes ‘Only knowledge illuminates that bottomless place […]’.[x] They wish to gain something conclusive by conquering this uncanny sublime, with its vast ‘antechamber’, gigantic ‘great hall’ and the, at points miniscule and others mountainous, ‘spiral staircase’. The explorers who return time and again, whether Navidson or, in fact, the reader, seek to tame, to understand, knowing that they are never going to get anything new from the halls, that progress is impossible in those dark halls. It is this metamodern duality & ,multiplicity of polar desires/intentions we are seeing here- a yearning for progress, for movement, for understanding & the desire to keep experiencing the sublime. The reader oscillates in their desire for the sublime, swinging between unknowing and understanding, awe and fear, desire and terror. What House of Leaves asks is can we regain that feeling of the sublime by looking within those stories that were inspired by it? Can we experience, or even find, the sublime within a man-made gothic environment?
Whereas Danielewski expresses this desire to find the sublime in combination with the uncanny & a MM oscillating yearning, Dorst & Abrams explore a search for the sublime in a far different manner, relying more on MM ideas of the neo-romantic, which I’ll just leave as a tease for the moment. This is expressed in the story chiefly through Vevoda’s weapon- ‘The Black Stuff’
So, Vevoda- the main protagonist of the novel- rises to wealth & power through the creation of a super weapon that obliterates everything it is deployed against. What it leaves behind in the wake of this destruction is described as a ‘substance’. A black ink-like death dealing tar that corrodes whatever it touches, yet is also able to be converted into a wine, albeit an incredibly flammable vintage that stains the lips and tongue of those who drink it. The weapon, dubbed a ‘black vine’, is discovered to be mined from a specific source of the natural sublime, it’s prime ingredient is mined from a range of grand mountains on a private island, which are described as having been decapitated. It is the mining process which destroys this source of sublime inspiration, but the use of the black vine itself is specifically linked to the destruction social myth and story. As S eventually hypothesises:
‘Individuals and communities [are] wiped clean. Traditions and histories, myths […] all gone.
To drink the black stuff is to drink what has been lost.
To hold it in a barrel, S. imagines, is to imprison the vital; to cellar that bottle is to warehouse the sublime. To launch a Black Vine is to take all the churning fury of the lost and use to render other people, in some other place, equally lost.’[xi]
What S is suggesting, here is this idea of this metamodern sublime, or rather; a return to the grandeur of nature, the insignificance it inspires, but with a knowledge that it has been/is being destroyed. A neo-romantic sublime, in fact. And I think I’ve teased that long enough.
As the Notes on Metamodernism state: ‘[…]metamodernism appears to find it’s clearest expression in an emergent neo-romantic sensibility[xii]. How this relates to S and House of Leaves is made apparent in the following, where they expand upon the argument:
‘This [emerging] Romantic sensibility has been expressed in a wide variety of art forms and a broad diversity of styles […] what these strategies and styles have in common with one another is their use of tropes of mysticism, estrangement, and alienation to signify potential alternatives; and their conscious decision to attempt, in spite of those alternatives’, untenableness.[xiii]
It is this alternative that S and House of Leaves are searching for, and which S finds suggestions of through the depiction of Vevoda’s ‘Black Stuff’.
In an environment of shrinking natural sublime elements, must we turn to a new source of terror and awe? Or instead look to the aftermath of the destruction itself, the black stuff left in the wake of a black vine, for this feeling? Can we look to that man-made destruction and feel this? S explores an idea of a human sublime, setting this within the gothic genre context which supported the original experimentation. Both texts suggest we want this feeling again, we want to regain it, but S acknowledges that we have destroyed those elements and environments which can instil it, and so too the stories which relied upon it. So, instead, S suggests that we find a feeling of the sublime within the remnants of this destruction, in the wake of the ‘churning fury of the lost’ which has been dealt out. A sublime, then, built from its own destruction. Both texts, then, use the gothic and gothic tropes as a platform for exploring a yearning for utopia, or rather, for a movement towards the sublime; a desire for that feeling once more, though they recognise it is unobtainable. Danielewski attempts through looking back to previous forms, attempting to reclaim the feeling of the sublime in combination with the sublime. Dorst and Abrams, meanwhile, look forwards, accepting the loss of sublime elements and attempting to salvage something from the wreckage.
The End and the Beginning.
As exercises in metamodernism, they both also work well as exemplar polar opposites on the pendulum swing, as seen by S & House of Leaves’ respective ending and beginning. (On the very last page of S is a scribbled marginalia note- “Come in here + Stay”, and, in House of Leaves, the first page begins with “this is not for you”). S produces the modernist enthusiasm, proving something positive from this search for the sublime, as trying to find something new and serviceable from the ruins we have made and the poor attempts we make. It suggests we should ‘come in here’ to embrace this experience, not deny it, but revel in it ‘+ stay’ in this continuing tradition. Whilst House of Leaves, from the very beginning, is mired in that postmodern irony and apathy, telling us on the first page that ‘This is not for you.’ That we are unwanted, un-needed, that what we seek is not within, that the experiment is a failure- yet continues.
I do like to end these sort of things with a big rant, so settle in and get ready!
As these texts demonstrate, the gothic is a perfect mode for metamodern experimentation. It contains the inherent pastiche and irony, providing room for the postmodern pole. Yet, through ideas of enlightenment via the sublime, for example, can suggest a modern enthusiasm as the counter swing. And, of course, a metamodern sincerity is inherent in the gothic. For, even though it is just a mad tale about impossible tentacle-dragon gods, we still fear when they ram our ship; even though we always know he was the heir to the castle, we rejoice when he reclaims his birth right; even though- and here I do apologise, but it had to be done- even though deep into that darkness peering, long we stand there wondering, fearing, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before. Though the silence is unbroken and the stillness give no token, yet we still shiver when the only word there spoken is the whispered word ‘Lenore’; and – back to reality here – even though the natural sublime has been defamed, destroyed or devalued, we still yearn for that terror and awe.
It is through the gothic that we, as readers, can explore our yearning and desire for movement, swinging in that pit upon that metamodern pendulum, between the sublime and the subpar, between hope and despair, sincerity and cynicism. Never lingering at either, before being dragged back to the other.
[i] Daniel Southward, ‘Defeat Is Good for Art: The Metamodern Impulse in Gothic Metafiction’, Studies in Gothic Fiction, 4 (2015), 30–41 <http://studiesingothicfiction.weebly.com/current-issue.html>.
[ii] Joanne Watkiss, Gothic Contemporaries: The Haunted Text (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2012), p. 7.
[iii] Alison Gibbons, Multimodality, Cognition, and Experimental Literature (New York: Routledge, 2012), p. 85.
[iv] Bronwen Thomas, ‘Trickster Authors and Tricky Readers on the MZD Forums’, in Mark Z. Danielewski, ed. by Joe Bray and Alison Gibbons (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011), pp. 86–102.
[v] J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst, S (New York: Hachette Book Group, 2013), p. 267.
[vi] Abrams and Dorst, p. 316.
[vii] Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker, ‘Notes on Metamodernism’, Journal of AESTHETICS & CULTURE, 2 (2010), 1–14 (p. 2).
[viii] Vermeulen and van den Akker, p. 2.
[ix] Vermeulen and van den Akker, p. 9.
[x] Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves by Zampano with Introduction and Notes by Johnny Truant, Color 2nd (New York: Random House, 2000), p. 87.
[xi] Abrams and Dorst, pp. 449–50.
[xii] Vermeulen and van den Akker, p. 8.
[xiii] Vermeulen and van den Akker, p. 9. (My emphasis underlined)
Danny Southward is a PhD student at the University of Sheffield. His research looks at the role of the Gothic in investigating post-postmodern modes. You can follow him on twitter at @DannySouthy