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«The Text, the Void and the Vortex: Turbulent Topologies in Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves Moritz Ingwersen Abstract The human fear of space ...»

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Located in the centre of what Jed, a member of the exploration team, calls the ‘Great Hall,’ with a ceiling ‘at least five hundred feet high’ and ‘a span that may approach a mile,’15 the space of the pit is that of excess and exposure. At its bottom – the infinitesimal point where perspective lines collude – the staircase merges into a trap. Its topology materializes the affective space between claustrophobia and agoraphobia. Similar to the surrounding walls which constantly reconfigure themselves with the sound of deafening growls, the stairway is not exempt of grotesque distortions. Like a gigantic whirlpool its size and location alters dramatically from one moment to the other. The most drastic proof of its uncanny plasticity comes to Navidson when a first descent is aborted after seven hours because ‘a dropped flare still does not illuminate or sound a bottom,’ 16 and a second mission a couple of days later reveals the bottom ‘no more than 100ft down.’17 As if to facilitate the entrance to an enormous trap, the spiral staircase, it seems, ‘collapsed like an accordion,’ 18 or contracted like a mechanical spring only to store up energy for its next inflation. And, soon enough, when Navidson and his companion Reston prepare for a quick ascent back up, its size abruptly stretches to astronomical scales. While Reston manages to escape as he and his wheelchair are hauled up by a steelrope fastened to the top end of the stairs, Navidson helplessly watches the stairwell zoom away as ‘that faintly illuminated circle above […] starts getting smaller and smaller.’19 When readers learn that a dropped quarter takes fifty minutes to reach bottom, Navidson realizes that the expanding stairs have left him abandoned at the impossible depth of approximately 54,000 miles.20 In perpetual unrest, the architecture of the house on Ash Tree Lane evokes a form in flux – a vortex of stairs whose turbulent sight not only disrupts architextural 21 but also vestibular order – it induces vertigo. Indeed, Danielewski’s warping staircase finds a clear cinematographic referent in Hitchcock’s famous reverse tracking shot first employed in Vertigo (1958).

It is hardly a coincidence that in House of Leaves the episode of Navidson’s abandonment at the bottom of the stairs, is interspersed with a hyperdiegetic story about the fate of a solitary sailor trapped in the bowels of a sinking ship tellingly named ‘The Atrocity:’22

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blacker than any Haitian night or recounted murder, though he did find a flashlight, not much against the darkness he could hear outside and nothing against the cold rushing in as this great coffin plummeted downwards […].23 Whether inside of a vessel or not, the downward suction of the whirlpool results in a constricted space of no return – the claustrophobic’s greatest horror.

Note how in Edgar Allan Poe’s story ‘A Descent into the Maelström,’ the rapid

gyration of the water turns the vortical ocean surface into the walls of a tomb:

Never shall I forget the sensations of awe, horror and admiration with which I gazed about me. The boat appeared to be hanging, as if by magic, midway down, upon the interior surface of a funnel vast in circumference, prodigious in depth, and whose perfectly smooth sides might have been mistaken for ebony, but for the bewildering rapidity with which they spun around, and for the gleaming and ghastly radiance they shot forth, as the rays of the full moon, from that circular amid the clouds which I have already described, streamed in a flood of golden glory along the black walls, and far away down into the inmost recesses of the abyss.24 As I am trying to illustrate, vortices function as powerful motifs of an ambiguous space, whose sensation at best induces nausea but most of the time signifies the irreversible passage to a new order of space – this can be the space of death, another dimension, the bottom of the ocean, or the underworld. In Danielewski’s House of Leaves, the turbulent topology of the spiral staircase is emblematic of a ‘metamorphosis so profound [the book] becomes a new kind of form and artefact.’25 Between the void of the empty page and the palimpsestic density of multiple layers of inscription, new and unanticipated typographic morphologies emerge. The text itself is subject to a distortion that echoes the topologically complex structure at its diegetic core. As pages are turned at varying speeds and angles, copious footnotes change orientation or spiral their way from the bottom to the margins of the text, and disjointed words and letters tumble across the page in a visual mimesis of movement, House of Leaves begins to inhabit a previously unknown dimension of engagement between reader and text.

No longer merely a symbol for the transformation of diegetic space, the turbulent logic of the vortex intrudes into the typographic and cross-referential order of words on paper and becomes a spatial metaphor for a haptic reading experience that is best described in the words of one of Danielewski’s characters as a ‘goddamn spatial rape.’26 Notes 1 For prominent spiral figures in literature, art and film see for example: Hitchcock’s The Spiral Staircase (1945) and Vertigo (1958), Higuchinsky’s Uzumaki (2000), Lovecraft’s ‘The Festival’ (1925), Borges’ Ficciones (1944), Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), Smithson’s ‘Spiral Jetty’ (1970), Bierce’s ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’ (1890), Poe’s ‘A Descent into the Maelström’ (1841), Escher’s ‘Spirals’ (1953), ‘Whirpools’ (1957) and ‘Print Gallery’ (1956).

2 For the distinction between random turbulence (turba) and the emergent turbulence of the vortex (turbo) see Michel Serres, The Birth of Physics, trans. Jack Hawkes (Manchester: Clinamen Press, 2000), 28: ‘The first designates a multitude, a large population, confusion and tumult. It is disorder […]. But the second is a round form in movement like a spinning top, a turning cone or vortical spiral. This is no longer disorder […].’ 3 Michel Serres, The Birth of Physics, 49-50.

4 Ibid., 50.

5 Charles Olson, Call Me Ishmael: A Study of Melville (London: Jonathan Cape, 1967), 15.

6 Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. Maria Jolas (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008), 18.

7 Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves (London: Pantheon Books, 2000), 30.

8 Ibid., 57.

9 Ibid., 413-414. Spelling errors are part of the original as typographic representation of the manuscript.

10 Ibid., 423.

11 Ibid., 133.

12 Ibid., 85.

13 Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (London: Thomas M. Lean, 1823), 97.

14 Burke, A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, 102.

15 Ibid., 85.

16 Ibid., 86.

17 Ibid., 159.

18 Ibid., 164.

19 Ibid., 288.

20 See Ibid., 305.

21 The use of this blend with reference to House of Leaves goes back to Finn Fordham, ‘Katabasis in Danielewski’s House of Leaves and Two Other Recent American Novels,’ in Mark Z. Danielewski, eds. Joe Bray and Alison Gibbons, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011), 44.

22 See Ibid., 298.

23 Ibid., 299.


Edgar Allan Poe, ‘A Descent into the Maelström,’ in The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Stories (London:

Marshall Cavendish, 1986), 112.

25 Katherine Hayles, Writing Machines (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002), 112.

26 Danielewski, House of Leaves, 55.

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Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space, trans. Maria Jolas. Boston: Beacon Press, 2008.

Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. London: Thomas M. Lean, 1823.

Danielewski, Mark Z. House of Leaves. London: Pantheon Books, 2000.

Fordham, Finn. ‘Katabasis in Danielewski’s House of Leaves and Two Other Recent American Novels.’ In Mark Z.

Danielewski, edited by Joe Bray and Alison Gibbons, 33-51. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011.

Hayles, Katherine. Writing Machines. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002.

Olson, Charles. Call Me Ishmael: A Study of Melville. London: Jonathan Cape, 1967.

Poe, Edgar Allan. ‘A Descent into the Maelström.’ In The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Stories, 100-115.

London: Marshall Cavendish, 1986.

Serres, Michel. The Birth of Physics, trans. Jack Hawkes. Manchester: Clinamen Press, 2000.

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