Ergodica: House of Leaves, Puzzle Boxes, and Experimental Literature

When I first heard about House of Leaves, I was excited. People told me it was maddening, mind-bending, the kind of thing meant to unhinge you from reality, using everything from metanarratives to typography to convey the insanity of its eponymous house. The book was meant to be a labyrinthine book about labyrinths, a story whose format was part of the narrative. That idea, that the form of a story could be part of the story, a kind of origami flower that opened as you read it, opened up new horizons in my imagination.

Then I sat down and read House of Leaves.

I couldn’t finish it. There was typographical trickery galore and some really tremendous 71vmj-9dzylpieces of metanarrative, but Johnny Truant’s invasive footnotes, evocative of someone else’s mind invading the story, had no substance to them, nothing that fit together with the dry scholarly passages about the Navidson Record and the drama of the expeditions into the heart of the house. And that’s my main critique of most of the book: these fantastic, inventive typographical tricks didn’t come together as a cohesive whole to evoke the story it was telling. Instead, it ended up as mostly white noise, a bunch of jigsaw pieces glued onto a very compelling nucleus, the house, whose borders and boundaries can’t be contained in space, time, or (potentially) the book itself.

In the end, what made me put down the book was sheer disinterest. It hurts the narrative flow to include the kind of ergodic lit puzzles that House of Leaves throws out: reading upside-down and slantways, combing through footnotes and inlaid text boxes, reading pages with only one word on them, following margin-notes (ala Ship of Theseus). But I would gladly read a book that uses all the same tricks as long as I felt like it was all adding up to something. I didn’t give a fuck about Johnny Truant and his drug-fueled casual sex episodes. About halfway through the book, I realized that all these strands were a mess, not a tapestry, and it sucked my resolve to keep navigating all the puzzles.

61vy5clgs5l-_sy344_bo1204203200_ A good counterexample of a piece of experimental literature that did its job well is Trillium, the graphic novel with Jeff Lemire. It takes a lot of skill to make a reader just flip a book upside down, but Trillium gave an amazing narrative reason to do just that: at one point in the book, the narrative splits into two parallel universes, and so the panels are actually running parallel to one another, but flipped so you don’t read both timelines at once. This makes you focus on one at a time while also getting little peripheral glimpses of what’s to come. It’s genius, and it works because it’s coherent, intuitive to navigate, and grounded in the narrative. You know why it’s happening, how to read it, and what it means for the story.

House of Leaves may read like Harry Plinkett’s jigsaw puzzle challenge, but it still did something original and tremendously thought-provoking by giving an idea of what ergodic literature could do and be. The very idea of it inspires me, and despite the frustrations and disillusionment, I wanted to do something like it. But there were three things to keep in mind if I was going to fool around with ergodic literature:

  1. The structure and format of the story would have to be grounded in the story
  2. The way the reader navigates or decodes the text would have to be intuitive and immersive, meaning that it was easy to grasp and brought people deeper into the story
  3. The structure and format needed to have a good flow, making it easy to jump in and out of

I came up with the idea of a “corpse” book, a story that was physically split into six separate books, like a torso with the limbs severed off. It would be, in practice, a constellation of short stories that illuminate a central novel, all united by invisible threads. You would start with all of the books, beginning by reading the central book, the torso, but periodically follow the narrative into one of the other limb books, then return. Each of the limbs would shed more light on the central book, but would be its own contained story and narrative.

The idea? Create a story about immortality, truth, and godhood whose structure and interconnections would mirror the Kabbalah Tree of Life and the Sephiroth, and whose story has to be unlocked like Hellraiser’s puzzle box, one piece at a time.

occult triangle lab sketches
Corpse book: central book in center, limb books in periphery

To be continued…

Ergodica: House of Leaves, Puzzle Boxes, and Experimental Literature

The Crownless King

‘The crownless king’ is a necromantic concept I’ve had in my head for a couple years now, waiting to be woven into a story. It’s meant to be an honorific, a title, an honor. It came partly from Kabbalah, from the Tree of Sephiroth: the highest sephirot is Keter, the Crown, which is equated with the head of God, the King of Creation. 

The ‘crownless king’ came up in one story, but the draft was never finished. The story was about chiromancy, the magic of altering and manipulating the human body. Here’s an excerpt from the story, which deals with the concept.

Let me know what you think in the comments.

— Chris


Samal looked down at the bailing knife in his hand, held it up to the light, and tilted it. He held it out to Iz.

“Hold this.”

One by one, he began unbuttoning his coats, jackets, and shirts, until the illuminated, tattooed skin of his chest was bare. When he was finished, Samal sighed.

“When I was growing up, there were seven hallmarks to a wizard: a name, a song, a card, a craft, a hand, a tongue, and tired feet. For Muzin, there were tattoos added in.”

Samal made eight points on his chest with his fingers, each one touching a different star. “The eight points of the world, the eight ports…the seven hallmarks and the tattoos show you’re bona-fide.” Samal shook his head slowly. “Real bona-fide wizards don’t die.”

Iz was staring at him. Samal could see his mind working.

“I’ve seen friends of mine take a bullet to the lung and keep laughing. One of them walked out of a hostel without his jaw. They knew the amount of blood in their bodies down to the thimble, and they could weave muscle faster than yarn. The only way to get seven hallmarks was to be a stitcher, bones, blood, or tissue. Now we’re back to just that. There’s only one hallmark left now, and it’s the crownless king. You ever heard of the crownless king?”

Iz shook his head slowly. The knife was getting tighter in his hand. Samal put both hands on his head.

“A crownless king is when you can take away a person’s head, sever it from the spine, and the person doesn’t die. They don’t drain blood, they don’t need air, they don’t eat food. Their body is perfect, no matter where you cut it. There have been twenty-two crownless kings in our age. My teacher was one of them.” Samal nodded to Iz. “Now, I’ll show you how to harvest muscle.”

Samal pointed at one of the stars on his chest. “You’re going to open me from the north to the south star. Half an inch deep. That’s this much.”

Samal held up a half-inch between his thumb and forefinger.

“If you cut too deep, it won’t matter to me. Just take your time.”

Iz’s body stiffened up, and his shoulders rose, but he didn’t say anything. His neck jerked to the side, then his arm, all the way down his body, like a puppeteer tugging on each joint. Then he stepped forward with the knife. With careful precision, he laid one hand on Samal’s chest and inserted the blade into the skin. With steady pressure, he dragged the tip down Samal’s sternum, watching the tip of the knife with rapt attention. Samal could feel the cold sensation of metal parting the skin, and almost shivered at the smoothness and ease: either Iz had a practiced hand at carving, or he was half-asleep.

Then it was finished. A thin line divided Samal’s chest, cutting the tattoos in half. He took the knife and made two more long cuts, perpendicular to the first, creating a tall ‘I’. He peeled back both wings of skin and revealed the wet, red muscle of his chest. Iz stared like was looking toward the horizon.

“No blood,” Iz said softly. “None of it’s spilling out.”

“It’s hemostasis. Instant clotting, and the rest flows along the flesh like a magnet. You did a good job, too. Half-inch.”

Samal sighed, and the muscles bulged outward with his diaphragm.

“You have to be careful with this, especially in the cold. All the heat escapes, and diseases can get right into the flesh. You have to be very careful.”

Samal reached in and made two incisions on either side of a length of muscle, about three inches long. With the tip of the knife, he lifted out the strand and set it in his other hand.

“When you’ve got a body like mine, it heals very quickly, but I have to eat food, drink, and rest. I’ll get this strand back in two days. Now, bring me your bowl.”

Iz brought him the little bowl of water, and Samal set the strand of muscle in it.

“You’re going to grow this strand, just like my body will grow it. I’ll give you the powder, and you sing to it. In a few days, it’s going to grow into a sheet. When it’s ready, you can start using it again. And when you’re finished with the skull, I’ll show you how to harvest your own muscle.”

Iz took the bowl. “How long did it take your teacher to become a crownless king?”

“It took him eighty-two years, I think.”

“Is he still alive?”

Samal bit his lip and exhaled through his nose. “No.”

“What killed him?”

“He killed himself.”

The Crownless King

Graffiti Gallery: Occult Eye

Back when I was living in a different neighborhood in Brooklyn, I would take walks around on the weekends to find graffiti. This is one of my favorite guys, partly because the design looks like a hybrid ankh and mostly because it’s creepy as shit to see these eyes everywhere.

What’s interesting to me is that the designs are drawn in different colors and mediums: there’s red, black, and white versions, and some seem to be done in chalk (like the bottom-right one on the door). Another interesting thing is that there’s no signature, which means there’s no name associated with it. Just the inscrutable eye.

Locations are Devoe St, Metropolitan Ave, and Bushwick Ave near the Grand St. stop on the L train.

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Graffiti Gallery: Occult Eye