Columns > Published on October 9th, 2015

'Haunted', the Album inspired by Mark Z. Danielewski's 'House of Leaves'

Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves was released 15 years ago, and in the time since the enigmatic novel has developed a bit of a cult following. Part horror fiction, part academic satire, it is mostly remembered for its ergodic page layout and unconventional style. The main story follows a family living in a house that is bigger on the inside than the outside, but there are also footnotes that reference fictional books, films and articles, while an accompanying parallel story told by the editor interjects commentary into the flow of the narrative that hints at connective tissue.

This has been parsed out and picked over ad nauseam since the early days of the Internet, a time when the book first picked up a reputation virally, but one connection that rarely makes it into the conversation is how the album Haunted by Poe serves as a kind of soundtrack for the book.  

Poe’s album avatar delves deep into herself, wandering through the hallways of her psyche on a search of discovery that results in closure. The book, however, only posits more questions.

Although House of Leaves is written by Danielewski, it is conceived as a book within a book written by an author known only as Zampanò. When he dies, a young tattoo artist named Johnny Truant discovers Zampanò's exegesis on The Navidson Record, a documentary film that doesn’t seem to exist. While Truant attempts to piece the narrative together, his own world unravels as he feels himself being stalked by an unknown force. Comparatively, Haunted is a parallax view of the same story as conceived by the author’s sister, Anne Decatur Danielewski, known by her stage name Poe.

Poe, a rock musician that rose to prominence during the mid to late 1990s, departed from her Lilith Fair brethren in how she fused rock, jazz, electronica, folk and hip hop elements. She released her first album, Hello, in 1995, and her second and only other album, Haunted, in 2000. With her sophomore effort she was inspired by her and Danielewski’s discovery of a box of audio tapes containing recordings of her late father, film director Tad Danielewski. These recordings are interspersed throughout the album, along with readings by her brother from his book, with the entire album serving as a tribute.

So while House of Leaves has been discussed on this very website in many other articles over the years, we will add to the discourse from a unique angle—five songs from Haunted will be examined and cross-compared with the book. Considering the album has 17 tracks and a bonus, only those with the most blatant connection to the book will be considered, though you’re certainly invited to seek the rest out on your own. These songs are “Exploration B”, “5&1/2 Minute Hallway”, “Dear Johnny”, “House of Leaves” and “Hey Pretty (Drive By 2001 Mix)”.

Exploration B

“Exploration B” is short, only 1:11 seconds long, and is more than likely a reference to Exploration A, a solo jaunt by Will Navidson, professional photographer and owner of the house, into the hallway that appears in his living room. It’s only then “do we begin to see how big Navidson’s house really is,” as the first 70-foot-long corridor takes a turn that leads on to “one space after another, a constant stream of corners and walls, all of them unreadable and perfectly smooth, finally culminating in a huge expanse of “undisturbed darkness” with no ceiling.

“Exploration B”, however, is framed as Poe’s message on her mother’s answering machine the day her father died. Accompanied by ambient noise and wistful notes, she softly sings the sorrowful lyrics, her words feeling as solitary and distant as the long, black halls of the house. She’s reaching out, seeking a human connection as much as Navidson hopes to satiate his curiosity, but both are left wanting. She also seems to have tapped into something supernatural, assuring her mother, “He isn’t holding a grudge/ And if you are you should let go”, with her voice then switching from melodic to urgent, like she’s eschewed some trance.

5&1/2 Minute Hallway

“5&1/2 Minute Hallway” is, of course, in reference to “The Five and a Half Minute Hallway”, the first short film disseminated in a “series of progressively degenerating dubs of a home video revealing a truly bizarre house with notably very few details about the owners or for that matter the author of the piece”. It features Navidson, who is never actually seen, in one continuous shot focused on the door of the aforementioned hallway on the north wall of his living room. He climbs out the window, goes around the house and climbs in another window, showing the length of the house, but then opens the hallway door to reveal that inside is at least 10 feet long.

The acoustic-centric song, by contrast, is a good example of Poe’s conceptual reimagining. It’s more about a woman that feels cut off from her love and doesn’t know how to express herself, creating a gap between them. She makes reference to her landlord measuring everything and getting it wrong, not unlike Navidson and his twin brother Tom’s obsessive attempts. She also mentions “there’s more to this story/ Than I have exposed/ There are words made of letters/ Unwritten”, a provocative sentiment considering the predominance of letters in House of Leaves.

Dear Johnny

“Dear Johnny” is much more explicit in its reference to the book. Johnny is of course Johnny Truant, the unreliable narrator that is attempting to piece the manuscript together into a coherent whole. The surreal, auto-tuned song is only 50 seconds long, serving as more of a segue, but has tantalizing references to key aspects of the text. The title could perhaps be a nod to the letters between Truant and his mother, Pelafina H. Lièvre, in the 1980s while she stayed at The Three Attic Whalestoe Institute. A number of the letters back and forth between the mental asylum are collected in Appendix II of House of Leaves, but more were released in a companion book, The Whalestoe Letters.

The song itself states: “Johnny dear don’t be afraid/ I will keep your secret safe/ Bring me to the blind man who/ Lost you in his house of blue”. Truant could very well be the same “character” in “Angry Johnny” from the song on Poe’s early album Hello, a kind of creative volleyballing as Poe reclaims what Danielewski borrowed. The blind man, meanwhile, is Zampanò, the reclusive author, and the house of blue refers to how every instance of the word house, referring to the Navidson’s home, is colored blue in the book. This is something that Danielewski, according to LitReactor’s own Kasey Carpenter in his 2012 article “Post-Mortem: ‘House of Leaves’ by Mark Z. Danielewski”, has stated in interviews is an attempt at evoking blue screens in cinema. As Carpenter explains, “the color is the exact shade of chroma-key blue” that filmmakers use as placeholders for digital effects to be layered onto. Although the purpose is ambiguous, most agree it encourages the reader to project themselves into the pages and, consequently, into the house.

House of Leaves

The next song flat-out shares the title of the book, but at 1:48 works as more of a transition in the narrative. It again infuses recorded messages, as if in faraway echo, from Poe’s father overlaid with Spanish guitar, bits of an old French song and the tail end of her finally getting a hold of her mother on the phone, presumably picking up where “Exploration B” left off.

The lyrics are cryptic, with a Spanish man saying they will play hide and seek in the house. The French song, “Dominique”, is sung by a young Poe, called Annie by her father, and the literal translation is: “Domi-nique -nique -nique went about simply,/ a poor singing traveller./ On every road, in every place,/ he talks only of the Good Lord,/ he talks only of the Good Lord.” Again the motif of movement and rambling, compounded with the sense of play and awe that comes with Navidson’s children wanting to venture into the hallway and the untimely horror that results.

Hey Pretty (Drive By 2001 Mix)

Finally, “Hey Pretty”, a propulsively sleazy song that was originally released with lyrics by Poe. When it couldn’t get air time she replaced her verses with her brother reading an excerpt from his book. As revealed in an interview with MTV, “Pondering Poe: Wrestling With Macho Radio”, female acts were not big on air at the time, so to get on a station in Portland she had Danielewski read a segment in which Truant goes for a drive with a woman named Keiri “in her new 2-door BMW Couple” and they end up swerving along Mulholland Drive until pulling over for a bout of graphic sex, with “Syllables soon melting into groans or moans, finding purchase in new words, or old words, or made-up words”.

The resulting music video, with Poe and a double washing, driving and lounging on a vintage car and then mud wrestling, was controversial at the time. It features Danielewski reading his spoken-word segments between throbbing electric guitars, and ends with “Das nicht zu Hause sein”, “Not being at home” in German, repeated twice, an apt statement as it recurs throughout the book. All that remains of Poe’s lyrics is the chorus: “Hey pretty/ Don't you wanna take a ride with me?/ Through my world/ Hey pretty/ Don't you wanna kick and slide/ Through my world/ Hey pretty/ My pretty baby/ Rock it through my world (through my world)”. The thematic connection is perhaps not as tight as the other songs, but evokes Truant’s freewheeling and self-destructive lifestyle and channels the kinetic energy of that chapter.

These songs and the entire album add up to spiritual companion that complements the book in unexpected ways. Certainly both works have a pervading sense of loss and isolation to them. It’s undeniable that House of Leaves has a masculine drive, as it’s both written by a man and features dueling male protagonists, Truant and Navidson, while Poe’s approach is more feminine in its introspection.

While her brother presents characters that deal with their conflicts through action and self-denial, Poe’s album avatar delves deep into herself, wandering through the hallways of her psyche on a search of discovery that results in closure. The book, however, only posits more questions.

About the author

A professor once told Bart Bishop that all literature is about "sex, death and religion," tainting his mind forever. A Master's in English later, he teaches college writing and tells his students the same thing, constantly, much to their chagrin. He’s also edited two published novels and loves overthinking movies, books, the theater and fiction in all forms at such varied spots as CHUD, Bleeding Cool, CityBeat and Cincinnati Magazine. He lives in Cincinnati, Ohio with his wife and daughter.

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