The 3-Year Hallway

With my job contract wrapped up, I finally have some free time to catch up with some personal projects. One of them being working my way trough the pile of books and games that accumulated over the last two years or so. Just recently, I finished House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski.

House of Leaves Mindfuck

Bricks may or may not have been shat.

House of Leaves is a book a lot of people are talking about. At least they were talking about it 3 years ago or so. I heard first about it when I began working on TRAUMA. I remember is specifically from one of the old Blogs of the Round Table posts. I started reading it when I finished my thesis project. I liked it a lot. But reading it required some effort so after a while, it turned into one of those books that would collect dust on my bedside table. And it’s not that I tried it. I had the book with me when I was in France in 2010. Never got to even open it. So naturally, I was quite relieved to be finally able to go back to it.

In case you are not familiar with it, it’s a very experimental book. It’s basically a horror mystery novel, not unlike Stephen King. It’s about a House, where supernatural things happen. The experimental part is its multi-layered narrative and its crazy layout.

The multi-layered narrative goes as follows. The story of the house is represented as a re-telling of a pseudo-documentary found-footage movie about the house. Specifically, it’s a book pretending to do an analysis and interpretation of the fictitious movie. It ends up re-telling the story of the movie, but also adds commentary. But that analysis is actually something a drug addict and small time criminal finds. Specifically, he finds notes of somebody, who tried to write the book. He becomes obsessed with gathering all the notes and compiling them into a finished book. But he also starts writing down comments and his own diaries and stories in-between. The two stories – the film book and the drug addict’s diary mix with each other. On top of that, there are notes from the editor of the whole thing. The multiple narrators start commenting on each other and it becomes a crazy ride.

And yes, the layout is crazy too. The different narrators each have their own font so you can tell who wrote what. At some point, the standard book layout breaks down and the text starts running all over the place. This often reflects what is happening in the story. In one instance, the protagonist needs to climb up a vertical shaft. For these pages, the text is set in a narrow column and needs to be read from bottom to top. Other times, the protagonist loses orientation. On those pages, you need to turn the book around because the text is written sideways or upside-down. But that’s just the most obvious instances. Some pages are almost blank. Others contain graphical elements.

House of Leaves Layout

Surprisingly manageable but still unsettling.

Reading it, what immediately jumps at you are the book’s extensive footnotes. The embedded movie book already has a fair share of references to other sources in the form of footnotes. The book is a story and its very own secondary literature at the same time. However, not all of the references are actually real. Some of them are fictitious articles, papers and books. Some of them are real. Following up those references often becomes this ARG-like experience. For even more fun, the drug addict adds his stories and comments in the form of footnotes – sometimes even commenting on the footnotes themselves. He even flat-out exposes some of the references as fake or adds his own red herrings.

I was glad to even find some small game references (Myst!). Indeed, the book could be seen an interesting blend of a novel and a game. Not only do the footnotes represent side-quests to peruse. The book itself also contains codes and cyphers. They don’t need to be solved to understand what is going on. But they add an active, exploratory part to the reading experience.

Also noteworthy is the idea of telling a story in the form of a fictitious critical analysis. It replaces the omniscient narrator with the voice of fictitious film/literary critics. The insight of each character’s thoughts and motivations is not the result of the narrators god-like status but the implied analysis and interpretation of other people. Funny enough, the result ends up feeling very similar to a “regular” story – it just adds flavor.

On the other hand, it’s not just flavor. There are some running themes that hold the different layers and the unusual style together. The most obvious being the theme of a labyrinth. The characters in the movie explore a labyrinth. The various footnotes, codes and embedded stories represent a labyrinth. The layout too often has a labyrinthine feel to it. It may be a crazy, experimental book. But it’s being held together by strong, unifying themes. Yo dawg, I heard u like labyrinths.

Which is also something one could criticize. Sure, the experimental nature is beautifully post-modern. It contains some amazingly smart observations and thoughts. But underneath it all, it’s a very simple, tired old story of a haunted house. The embedded secondary literature simulates the kind of high-brow discourse a real haunted house movie couldn’t even dream to illicit. In the end, you could just as well read a real deep book and it’s secondary literature instead.

But perhaps the trivial story underneath is somehow needed. As already mentioned, the book is certainly challenging. Without a simple, addictive page-turner core to guide you along, many readers would probably tire out and get stuck. In the end, I enjoyed it a lot. It’s just fun to discover. It’s chock full of ideas. It reminds you that books and other media can be different. For a game designer, certainly a recommended read.

One last thing: many of the references are actually different sources about expeditions and exploration. There was a spooky moment of finding quotes from the Shackleton expedition I just finished reading about. Did I mention that Danielewski also has a Polish background? And that there are a lot of German quotes in the book? *Cue X-Files Music* But anyhow, I was glad being able to steal some for the references for my own research. Thanks, Z!

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

3 responses to “The 3-Year Hallway”

  1. John Krajewski

    Thanks for the review, sounds like something I’ll definitely need to check out. My favorite movies are ones that play with the storytelling in ways like that (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, for example).

  2. DoubleW

    A few months after finishing the book, I was struck by the idea that it was using the House to show how our own sense of reality isn’t fixed in place at all. Towards the end of the addict’s narrative he is doing a tour of the ‘historical’ part of a Virginia town (I think it was on the way to his old house?) and he realizes that the tour’s version of history is very whitewashed and simplified. Yet the other people in the tour may never realize this and believe this version of history to be true. I think he responds by asking a bunch of questions of the tour guide and getting ignored but anyway the point of the scene is that large parts of the human experience are being forgotten because no one is looking at them, much like things inside the House change when no one thinks to remember them.
    There are more examples of things like this all through the book. Are the passages about the minotaur a part of the book just because the text still happens to be there, or are they no longer there because they have been crossed out?

    Mindfuck, indeed.

  3. fish

    A good book,some people will like it


The Game Design Scrapbook is a second blog of group of three game designers from Germany. On our first blog, Game Design Reviews we describe some games we played and point out various interesting details. Unfortunately, we found out that we also need some place to collect quick and dirty ideas that pop into our minds. Hence, welcome to Game Design Scrapbook. You will encounter wild, random rantings. Many of then incoherent. Some of them maybe even in German. If you don't like it, you might enjoy Game Design Reviews more.


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