House of Leaves Book Club Week 01: Meet Johnny Truant

The first “real” week of reading for House of Leaves has begun, and I can already feel myself getting sucked into the story without even reaching its main piece, The Navidson Record.

Surely, this bodes well for my sanity.

This week, we were tasked with meeting two of our main characters, Johnny Truant and Zampano, the former owner of “The Navidson Record”.

Johnny is a bit (read: alot <– purposeful misspelling for HoL readers) of a drug-addled misfit who’s taken up with a friend named Lude (an accurate name for his personality and is, therefore, most likely a play on “lewd”) and a stripper known only as “Thumper” thanks to the rabbit’s likeness tattooed in a very special location.

In only a few pages, we learn that Johnny suffers from insomnia, nightmares, and paranoia. Why? Because an old man (Zampano) has died in Lude’s apartment building, leaving behind strange, hidden documents about a film that doesn’t exist: The Navidson Record.

The apartment continues to open a Pandora’s box of mystery as Johnny and Lude happen upon books in the fridge and discover no clocks, unused candles, and zero lightbulbs. The big reveal here is Zampano was blind – or, at least, he’s left us with the assumption he was blind. Indeed, House of Leaves very nearly begins with darkness, setting a theme for the next 600 pages where we will roam the dark much like Zampano has done for decades.

Trust me: this is intriguing.

My notes and observations follow (beware – this post will be heavily-laden with spoilers, so proceed with caution):

  • There are already lots of references to trees, leaves, or the idea of trees and leaves. For example:
    • “Endless snarls of words, sometimes twisting into meaning, sometimes into nothing at all, frequently breaking apart, always branching off into other places I’d come across later…” (pg xvii)
    • “…his mind never ceases branching into new territories…” (pg xxii)
  • Statements like “he was blind as a bat” and “…who must somehow capture the most difficult subject of all: the sight of darkness itself” remind me of later in the book, when Navidson is trapped in the House, trying to claw his way around in an ever-changing space. Allusion much?
  • The name “Zampano is an interesting one that could be further dissected:
    • Zampano is a character featured prominently in the movie, “La Strada”.
    • Zampano is also the third-person plural present indicative (ayiyi, did not miss my high school language classes) of the word “zampare”, an Italian word meaning “to paw”. An interesting relationship to note, as Truant tells us cats had an explained draw to Z in the introduction (see questions below for more information).

Now that I’ve rambled enough about my observations, I present to you my lingering questions (and answers as I come back to this post over time):

  • Who is Johnny Truant? Is it possible Lude and Zampano don’t actually exist? That Lude is Johnny when he’s riding one of his drug-induced waves?
  • Only one woman gets a name in the intro, other than women Zampano is claimed to have mentioned (I’ll get into that in the next bullet). That woman is Clara English, the girlfriend who crushes Johnny’s heart, spurring him toward Thumper. Other women are introduced with descriptions like, “single mother” or “stripper”. Why is Clara the only woman mentioned with a real name?
  • The seven women Zampano occasionally mentioned are Beatrice, Gabrielle, Anne-Marie, Dominique, Elian’s, Isabelle, and Claudine. What is their significance?
    • These names appear to be locations of fortified hills at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu (time period reference: First Indochina War, 1950s; location: Vietnam). Truant makes several mentions of Zampano having fought in a war, although the exact one is left to our imagination, and I can’t help but think his veteran status is once again referenced when Truant refers to the name Zampano not as a nom de plume, but as a nom de guerre.
      • There’s another war reference at the description of irony being a “…personal Maginot Line…” (time period reference: WWII, 1930s; location: France)
  • Around the time of Zampano’s death, the cats who used to cling to his being suddenly begin disappearing. Why is this important? Is it?

A day of reading and week of analyzing and research. Hmm. Are you sick of me yet?

Note: I consider this post a work in progress and may revisit with other thoughts throughout my reading. Much like the house, this will be a living, breathing thing.

To finish off this week’s notes, here are some of my favorite quotes from the introduction:

  • “…what’s real or isn’t real doesn’t matter here. The consequences are the same.” (pg xx)
    • Book Club Question (my answer TBD): What does this say about Johnny as a narrator? How does it frame our anticipations about the rest of the book (even if we’ve already read it)? And for a more complicated question: how does this prepare us for the trickier dialogue about gender, race, and the narrative self? Finally, what do we make of the word “consequences”?
  • “Zampano writes constantly about seeing. What we see, how we see and what in turn we can’t see.” (pg xxi)
  • “Well that, of course, was Zampano’s greatest iconic gesture; love of love written by the broken hearted, love of life written by the dead.” (pg xxi)
  • “And then for better or worse you’ll turn, unable to resist, though try to resist you still will, fighting with everything you’ve got not to face the thing you most dread, what is now, what will be, what has always come before, the creature you truly are, the creature we all are, buried in the nameless black of a name.” (pg xxiii)

As a side note, I went to Barnes & Noble last weekend to use up a few 20% coupons and accidentally (I’m serious) happened upon a full-color copy of House of Leaves. Knowing I “only” have the two-color version (and because my FOMO is very, very real), I threw money at my obsession before proudly leaving the store. I plan on reading through my original copy because it’s falling apart, which somehow lends itself well to the topic at hand, but it’s nice to also have the on-steroids copy for reference.

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“House of Leaves” Book Club – My History with the HOUSE

House of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski
Click here to buy House of Leaves using my Amazon referral link

This week began a virtual relationship with my all-time favorite author (Mark Z. Danielewski) of my all-time favorite hook (House of Leaves). And you’re all invited to our wedding.

Actually, I’ve just joined a book club, but it’s led by the man himself, so… same thing?

Before involving myself in the group conversation (which has been going on for months and is finally getting less chaotic), I wanted to pop into my newly-created blog and jot down my thoughts. Chances are they’ll get garbled and even more confused once other people inject their opinions, so mine needed their own fleshing out.

My history with MZD began during the summer of 2003. My college friends liked the musical artist Poe who, as you’ll come to see if you read along with me, is heavily involved in the story (spoiler: she’s MZD’s sister and has an entire album based on the book, among other things). I remember taking forever to find the book because none of my local bookstores carried it and Amazon wasn’t a thing yet. I’m not even sure how I did finally get my hands on it, but I somehow managed to procure and devour it in a couple weeks, regardless.

It’s been so long, though, that I don’t remember the details, despite telling people it’s my favorite book. That’s not a huge problem, though – I fully support books having a lasting impact based on how they made you feel, and House of Leaves is definitely a punch to the feels.

For example, here’s what I remember from my first read:

  • Feeling completely insane
  • Getting odd looks as I turned the book in circles to read about the staircase
  • Being 100% engrossed in the weirdness
  • Having an overwhelming sense of place (or absence of place, as the case may be)

The premise? A family’s home is bigger on the inside than the outside. That’s it. Seems innocent enough, right? Maybe a little weird. In fact, I couldn’t 100% understand why the book was classified as horror until I was maybe halfway through. It’s fascinatingly creepy and you can’t forget about it because it takes you to literally dark places. You know there’s a message and mystery behind everything, but you have to discover them (and every person has a different interpretation, meaning the book never actually ends).

It can and will freak you out, although the way it does isn’t obvious. You’ll find yourself doing something completely unrelated and then realize all you’re thinking about is this novel. I don’t feel comfortable describing it as horror, but maybe that’s because it’s more psychological than what you’d find in a typical American horror book/film.

Our reading task for this week’s discussion is to comb through more of the book’s physicalities than to read. Something you’ll notice – as I did – is there isn’t anything about House of Leaves that isn’t intentional, including its design (and the fact the word “house” is always written in blue in most versions). There are footnotes that include lengthy sub-stories and text is often written in shapes that make you spin the book and even read up against a mirror.

It sounds like a huge pain, but it’s so immersive that you forget the minor annoyance. It’s an experience, not a novel.

I’ve prepared for my re-read by pulling together all my colorful markers and post-its so I can go to town marking up my observations:

I also purchased The Whalestoe Letters, which isn’t necessary for the club, but is referenced in the book as a supplement for the truly obsessed (ie: me). I fully intend to read through it when the letters come into play (I had questions about when I should read it and several friends recommended I wait until they’re referenced, then indulge).

So now, I’ll re-enter the house. And the madness. And love every minute of it.

Care to join? Search for “House of Leaves Book Club” on Facebook and be absorbed. Or just click here.

12 Evenings with Ted Bundy: Review of “The Stranger Beside Me” by Ann Rule

"The Stranger Beside Me" by Ann Rule
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Like any self-respecting procrastinator, I’ve only recently gotten into the “My Favorite Murder” podcast. For those of you living under a rock, it’s a two-woman comedy show about real-life murders. Yes, I know that sounds weird, but trust me: it works.

True crime has always fascinated me, although I didn’t realize it until a few years ago when I became an armchair detective intent on solving the JonBenet Ramsey case. My entire summer of 2015 was dedicated to reading books, websites, and forums with the crazy notion that I – with no professional background – could solve the mystery.

Fast-forward a few years and here I am, obsessed with a murder podcast and learning about new-to-me horrors on a weekly basis.

My life’s a blast.

I promise there’s a reason I told you all that: one of the “My Favorite Murder” fans created a 2018 Murderino Reading Challenge, essentially a BINGO board of true crime topics to read about in the coming year. Sign. Me. Up.

Now, that said, I’m lazy and I’m poor. As a result, I decided to cancel my Kindle Unlimited subscription because I’ve found myself gravitating toward physical books the past few years. While I was canceling, I learned that:

  • My subscription wouldn’t end until the end of February, based on my last renewal date
  • I had access to a plethora of Ann Rule books through Kindle Unlimited that I could binge read in that time
  • Ann Rule is on the Murderino BINGO board
  • She wrote a book about Ted Bundy
  • Georgia, from MFM, is also reading this book right now
  • Zac Efron is portraying Ted Bundy in an upcoming movie
  • I love Zac Efron

And that’s how I ended up cuddling with Ted Bundy every night for a 12 days.

The Review

Source: Seattle Times

First, let me say that Ann Rule was a treasure. I have to say “was” because she unfortunately passed away not long ago, leaving a well-written true crime legacy in her wake. Her style is engrossing, smart, and direct. She has a masterful way of weaving description and facts with observation and theories. Reading “The Stranger Beside Me” was – despite the topic – a treat.

As for Ted Bundy, I’m lucky enough to have not really known who he was prior to downloading Rule’s book. Sure, I knew he was a notorious murderer, but for what exactly, I wasn’t sure. I’m now sufficiently creeped out.

The book is an interesting view into Bundy’s life if only for the fact Rule was commissioned to write it before anyone knew who Bundy was. Indeed, it was any crime writer’s dream: be commissioned to cover a series of gory murders where young women are killed in rapid succession, only to eventually discover the murderer is someone you used to volunteer with, someone you considered a decent friend, someone you accompanied to the occasional work gathering. It makes for an interesting 550-page glimpse into a warped mind.

I won’t go into extreme detail about the book because I find those reviews boring. Instead, I thought I’d share some things I learned:

  • Nobody knows how many women Bundy killed and he never confirmed a number. When presented with “36”, he said, “Add a number to that and you’d be correct.” In other words, we’re talking anywhere from 37-360+ women. The acceptable estimate is at least 100, starting with the disappearance of a young girl in his neighborhood when Bundy was only 14/15 (which he denied).
  • He was notorious for escaping prison. His last romp with freedom took him to Florida, where he wreaked havoc on the community for a few weeks before being apprehended a final time.
  • His own stubbornness is probably why he was sentenced to death; Bundy insisted on defending himself throughout his trials. He’d continually have his lawyers fired, hire new ones, brag about them, then grow to detest them, too. His courtroom inexperience got him into trouble on several occasions, even leading him to rage once in front of a jury, which may very well have signaled his end.
  • He got married in court during one of his trials to a woman who (for good reason) essentially abandoned him at the end. I wish there was more information about that presented, but it didn’t seem like Carol Ann Boone had much (if any) respect for Rule from the beginning. I’ll have to look into that because it’s a piece that interests me.
  • Bundy doesn’t really have a diagnosis. There’s a lot of speculation as to what was “wrong” with him, but he’s more complex than maybe we give him credit for. For example, he’d stumble over his descriptions of the murders. Whether that was because he was remorseful or because he was playing a game is hard to say. Whatever was going on inside that deranged mind if his, he almost always came off as cool and calculating; you never knew if he was being genuine.

Needless to say, all of this has lured me into a deep rabbit hole of research from which I may never emerge.

While I’m here, I want to mention how I take umbrage with several Goodreads reviews and address them here, as it seems people enjoy reading only to speak miserably about what they shouldn’t have read in the first place:

  1. All of this information could be found online. Good story, but the internet didn’t exist (for public consumption) when the book was first published in 1980.
  2. There was bad editing. Yes. There was. And that admittedly gave me pause several times when words didn’t make sense or something was omitted/randomly capitalized. Blame the publisher.
  3. Rule speaks in cliches. Eh. Maybe. No worse than the plethora of authors who refer to light walking as “padding” on every other page.
  4. Rule drones on and on in her additions and should have rewritten the book instead. Okay, sure. There were times – toward the end – where I found myself saying, “Get on with it.” I’m not sure I agree that she should have completely rewritten the book, though, to include those details. It was more interesting to see how her ideas formed – and re-formed – over time as new information came out to play. You could see her struggle as someone who viewed him as both a deplorable mass of carbon and also as a human being who was there for her emotionally during a rough time.
  5. Rule insinuates she could have been Bundy’s victim, which is insane because she’s not an attractive young woman. First of all, there’s something wrong with if you feel so compelled to write that. When dealing with a potential serial killer whose MO isn’t 100% pinned down, it’s natural to not feel safe in a room alone with them. At least, that’s what I’d assume having hopefully never dined with one over wine in a remote area with no security. In most cases, I felt she was commiserating with the victims and viewed them as could-be daughters due to their age. Come on, dude; say something that makes me feel like you’re actually contributing to society.
  6. Rule doesn’t go into psychological depth about Ted Bundy. Probably. But how could she? Most of the book was written before the man was dead and nobody could put a finger on any true diagnosis; they still can’t. Rule describes at length – in several areas – how the only thing psychologists could agree on is that he wasn’t insane, but most likely had APD. One even went so far as to diagnose him as bipolar, which Rule felt was out of left field. Rule’s theory is that Bundy never had a chance to bond with his mother in his first few months, grew up under the thumb of a tyrannical grandfather, and exhibited signs of a sociopath as early as age three (when his aunt woke up from a nap surrounded by kitchen knives). The truth? I’m not sure anyone really knows or understands his psychological profile. He was merely, as one reviewer writes, “shittastically evil”.
  7. Rule doesn’t psychologically go into her own relationship with Bundy. To that, I ask: did we even read the same book? Rule states over and over again that she doesn’t understand her connection to him, saying she felt like a victim in that she – like many women – experienced an unexplainable draw to him. She states several times that she felt manipulated, betrayed, and even silly for caring about him. Like any decent person, she was confused. With hindsight being 20/20, it’s easy to write off her emotions and wish for more, but maybe it’s as simple as taking her word for how she felt.

Would I recommend this book?

100x yes! If true crime is your thing, and if you want to read a firsthand account of Ted Bundy before the movie comes out, I would highly recommend it. The book itself has its flaws, like a million additions and questionable editing, but the storytelling is intriguing and the sources are mostly primary. Thumbs up from this reader.