Event, Reviews

A Threshold to Unwelcome Homes: A Review of SJMA “The House Imaginary” Lunchtime Lecture

The uncanny and the abstract are concepts which haunt the familiar and mundane of life, creating nightmares from the known by causing it to become unknown. The San Jose Museum of Art became the vessel for exploration into the dark places of the home and the monsters of creation and imagination in Dr. Harris’ Lunchtime Lecture: “Gothic Monsters and Evil Houses” as a part of “The House Imaginary” exhibit. Discussing three novels in which the abstract and uncanny twist and change that which was comforting into a source of horror, Harris draws from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus, Stephen King’s The Shining, Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, three horror novels centered on home and the absence of such when corrupted by the “uncanny.”

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How the Uncanny can change that which was once familiar

As the title of the lecture suggests, the theme conjoining these narratives is the absence of home within a house, thus making the house and evil thing because it does not fulfill the expected role of comfort and familiarity, estranging it from the concept and the inhabitants of that space. Shelley’s Creature, Harris argues, is ultimately seeking a space, abstract or physical, to call a home, first in its own creator, Victor Frankenstein, then in a mate of similar design, which is aborted by that very same creator. It is because of this that the Creature becomes a monster. Since it cannot achieve a semblance of a home, it instead seeks to eradicate that sense of love and familiarity altogether from its creator turned torturer. The concept of home, then, is murdered along with the Creature’s victims.

Home again is absent from the beginning in The Shining, in that, the hotel is the antithesis of what is considered a home. Because the Hotel is meant as a temporary living space, the liminal in between of home and away, the permanence of Jack Torrence’s stay is the element of uncanny which causes this space to be perceived as evil. The sentience of the Hotel furthers its evil in that the non-living space possesses a sense of agency, absorbing living souls in order to further its inauthentic role as a permanent space by mimicking a home which houses the dead. Because the Hotel is not a home but can only mimic one, it cannot be a living space, and so is only capable of housing the dead. This corruption of the home is made so much more disturbing in the want to become a home, because the want can never be fulfilled and the perversion of the home becomes ongoing.

Last to be discussed is Danielewski’s physical and abstract exploration of the home and what must be taken away to transform it from a home to a house, or a completely

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Page from Danielewski’s House of Leaves

different space altogether. The house’s living and labrinthine existence mirrors the pride, anxieties, and desires of those who enter into it. In a complete contrast to King’s evil Hotel, Danielewski’s house separates itself from the role of home, falling further and further from the familiar into the indistinguishable uncanny. While the house thrives and grows within the abstract, it accomplishes this through a physical means.  The codex, the physical object of the book, is written in such a way as to force the reading to participate physically with the reading such as turning the book to follow an upside down passage, or identifying patterns in colored text. Through this, the house continues to reflect the fears and anxieties of those who encounter it by forcing the reader to envision the very things they fear in their imagination while reading. This house of leaves, the pages in the book, takes a different form for every reader or resident, making it the total embodiment of the supernatural uncanny.

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