When a House Is Not a Home: Gendered/Predatory Spaces in House of Leaves, “The Dionaea House,” and “House of Asterion”

Michael J. Dalpe, Jr.

Little solace comes

to those who grieve

when thoughts keep drifting

as walls keep shifting

and this great blue world of ours

seems a house of leaves

moments before the wind. (Danielewski 563)

 

The “haunted house” trope is a cornerstone of the storytelling tradition. It crops up often, appearing for many years in popular culture—cf. Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, to Stephen King’s The Shining, to the first season of the Ryan Murphy television series American Horror Story—and becoming part of the cultural landscape of horror stories. The haunted house is simultaneously interesting and repulsive: the audience wants to know why it is haunted, while also staying far enough away from the structure itself to preserve safety. These places also offer a kind of escape for the audience: the viewer is able to engage in the story, but can also step away and be reassured that these happenings are fictions, meant to titillate but not threaten. The issue becomes a matter of what creates a haunted house—what transforms a space from something neutral into something that is to be avoided or feared? For many spaces, it is the presence of something to be feared—whether a ghostly presence, a kind of monster, or the memories of something tragic, the space is marked as a place where people do not go, or where only certain people can go. These places take on a kind of life of their own, not only representing the happenings that occurred within them, but taking on the anxieties of the people who avoid them: the creation of a haunted house has as much to do with the history of the house as how people feel when confronted with that history. This paradigm is challenged, however, when a space is inimical to its inhabitants without a seeming cause, and it forces an audience to question what kinds of spaces these may be. What spaces cause discomfort? What spaces, by just being, seem to drive off inhabitants? These spaces, however fictitious, are discussed here: the creation of a space that is inherently aggressive and violent—in another word, predatory—towards those who would interact with it. Spaces such as these are found within Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, Eric Heisserer’s “The Dionaea House,” and Jorge Luis Borges’ short story “House of Asterion.” Within Borges, Heisserer, and Danielewski, the themes of gendered space and intrinsically aggressive spaces are explored, especially in relation to how the construction of these spaces directly mirrors several anxieties, including those of gender, social spaces, and the unknown.

Not a Ghost Story: The House/Home and Gendered Spaces

Haunted houses—those being inhabited by ghosts or something that is violent towards others—are not what are being discussed here. Rather, it is the concept of an impossible space that is outwardly malicious. Whether the space itself is a projection of the effect of those who fear it or if the space itself is personified into taking action against an inhabitant, it is the idea of a space being predatory that is examined, not of a space containing the predatory. This definition could also be extended to the idea of impossible spaces—those found within the works of Borges are a prime example. The narrator in “House of Asterion” says, “It is true that I never leave my house, but it is also true that its doors (whose number is infinite) are open day and night to men and to animals as well. Anyone may enter” (Borges 138). This is but one example of an impossible space: when describing the house, how could it have infinite numbers of doors or of rooms? Or, as seen within another work: “The Library of Babel” is yet another labyrinth-story, beginning, “The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries, with vast air shafts between, surrounded by very low railings. From any of the hexagons one can see, interminably, the upper and lower floors” (Borges 51). The impossibility of such places, and the disorientation that these descriptions seek to invoke, create a kind of claustrophobia that plays on the idea of a haunted house: it is not that these places are haunted by ghosts, but they are haunted by something that does not have a personality, and may very well be something that is not there. These places, and the stories about these places, create, if the phrase could be borrowed from many of Borges’ writings, Chinese boxes, nested within one another so that they are more than just what they contain. Impossible spaces and these predatory spaces overlap in that they are both physical constructions, something that is man-made. Part of the anxiety that is present in these spaces is about a locus of control: for a house to act like a house, it is to be tamed, and it is to be contained. With these three texts being discussed— especially House of Leaves—the containment of these spaces is impossible. This logical paradox is closely tied to the conceptualization of what constitutes a “house,” and is intrinsically tied to the idea of the labyrinth.

The establishment of what is meant by “house” is integral. In Danielewski’s text, each time the word “house” is referenced, it is written in blue ink, an eccentricity found here each time House of Leaves is referenced. What makes the house such a focal point? It is worth noting that in each of these texts, the word “house” appears in the title, creating a common touchstone that shows that these houses and the stories about them are based not on what occurs within these spaces, but on the spaces themselves. What makes these places so worthy of writing? To get to the heart of that, the differentiation must be made between what constitutes a “house” and what transforms a house into a home.

Houses are either physical dwelling places or, as an abstract concept, a metonym for a family—namely, family that is under the authority of the head of the household. The household itself is under the authority of its head—namely, the “husband,” who, etymologically speaking, is an owner of a house, or is, quite literally, house-bound (OED). This definition, coming from Old English, ties the idea of a man to his dwelling, but the dwelling itself is the focus of the attention. It is an established, immutable place, where a “husband” can be a voice of authority. However, the difference between a “house” and a “home” must still be addressed: while houses are places of authority, they are not a primary residence, as seen in the construction of phrases such as “beach house.” In the example of “beach house,” that residence is a place to vacation, not to stay. This “beach house” may have emotional gravity, but it is not the locus of a family; it eludes the psychological space of belonging that is inherent in the word “home.” As such, it is important that all of the works discussed here are merely “houses”: it is not only that they are not places of psychological and emotional anchoring, but that they cannot be. This is due to their nature: these predatory spaces not only do not allow inhabitants to remain long enough to anchor emotionally, they actively seek to negate the emotional transformations necessary to establish a home.

It is important here to note the role of the house as a symbol: while it is obviously lacking the emotional gravity of a home, the house and home together are half of a social binary, namely that of the house/home against the outside world. The house/home is the location of family, of leisure, and of privacy; the opposite is the outside world, wherein business and public life take place. While politicized by creating a schism between what is family-oriented and what is public-oriented, there is also a gendered aspect to this: overwhelmingly, the house/home is characterized as a feminine space, while the world of business and public life may be considered a masculine space. The house/home is seen as a nurturing environment, whereas the public sphere is seen constantly as vaguely malicious; this dichotomy appears often in literature, especially in Victorian texts, where the house/home is almost always created as a kind of haven from the outside world, where the influence of a chaste woman is present in order to soothe a man who has had to interact with the dirty, morally bereft world of business and industry. The linking of the feminine to the house is nothing new, however: the Victorians were not the first to tie a woman’s place in the world to the domestic sphere, and they most certainly were not the last. Gillian Rose talks at length about the expected spaces of a woman, and how spaces themselves become gendered. Indeed, “domestic geography traces that woman’s role in patriarchal society: she is expected to be a housewife and therefore in the kitchen, the site of much of her domestic labour [sic], she can challenge her husband, get angry, speak with authority, and get heard” (Rose 142).  Therefore, it is understood that the house and the home, though loci of control, are also gendered spaces, where prescribed social roles are enacted and enforced, creating a kind of culture in which the mores of one generation are instilled in another, and where the role of a woman is both created and reinforced. It is in this manner that houses are made familiar, that they are seen as havens in which to recover from the outside world. This familiarity is something experienced by the inhabitants of the house: as noted, it is a place in which one can return day after day, a place where the family resides and domestic issues replace worldly ones. The house is controlled, the house is familiar, the house is something solid and static. The house, it is easy to see, is not the kinds of shifting, mercurial spaces that are constructed by Danielewski, Borges, or Hesserier.

Das Unheimlich

What happens when the familiar becomes unfamiliar? In Freud’s “The Uncanny” unheimlich is a “class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar” (Freud 1-2). Translating literally as “unhomely” in English, “The German word unheimlich is obviously the opposite of heimlich, heimlich meaning ‘familiar,’ ‘native,’ ‘belonging to the home’; and we are tempted to conclude that what is ‘uncanny’ is frightening precisely because it is not known and familiar” (Freud 2). The German term is directly related to that of the house, or, specifically, to that of the home. The texts discussed here work strongly with the idea of houses themselves being unheimlich, in that they work in ways that are unfamiliar to an audience—after all, houses are meant to be inanimate, but in these texts, they actively seek to expel their inhabitants. These spaces undermine what is expected, in a way that not only engages the “intellectual uncertainty” that is part of unheimlich, but also in the fact that these seemingly inanimate structures, within these texts, seem to have not only will, but also an intelligence that is outwardly predatory. This, too, is part of unheimlich: “a particularly favourable [sic] condition for awakening uncanny sensations is created when there is intellectual uncertainty whether an object is alive or not, and when an inanimate object becomes too much like an animate one” (Freud 8-9). This is known colloquially as the “Uncanny Valley,” and is seen often with the advancement of technology, as noted by Catrin Misselhorn’s article “Empathy with Inanimate Objects and the Uncanny Valley.” The phenomenon is present when there is a facsimile of something familiar, most often of a human, which looks too similar to what it is representing. That is to say, in the context of technology, robots and androids that appear too human are met with a reaction that is visceral and oppositional; this reaction is present when animation comes too close to being life-like as well, as Misselhorn notes in reference to the 2004 film “The Polar Express” (Misselhorn 346-7).

A form of the Uncanny Valley could be seen as being present in the texts discussed here: while the houses in these stories show one kind of reality, they come too close to the uncomfortable. It is easy to imagine a house that is haunted by a spirit or a traumatic event, because then the house has a reason to be haunted—it is more difficult and a cause for discomfort to have a structure that has the appearance of a house but is not, and is actively aggressive in addition. The Uncanny Valley has another aspect in common with Freud’s unheimlich: the concept of doubling. Both have to do with the ideas of creating an Other that is impossible; this doubling is found in “House of Asterion,” and it is a theme throughout “Dionaea House” and House of Leaves, aspects of which are discussed below. The theme of Doubles, for Freud, is a conversation between the id, ego, and superego, in which the Double is a manifestation of an anxiety. It is also worth noting that the Double is linked to Freud’s conceptualization of castration complexes, which are further tied to how, for Rank, the theorist whose exploration of der doppelganger influenced Freud’s concept of the Uncanny, the idea of the Double, der doppelgänger, is intrinsically linked to death: all of these links form a chain that could ultimately be described as being about power and the anxiety that manifests when power, in whichever forms, is apt to be lost (Freud 9-10).

“…seems a house of leaves / moments before the wind.”

The unheimlich, combined with the sensation of doubling, plays a major role in each of the texts discussed here; in addition, however, gender issues and the reality of projecting emotion onto spaces also plays a crucial role in understanding these texts. This is seen most in House of Leaves. Danielewski’s novel is a twisting text that plays with form: it blurs the line between object and story, creating within itself a layered narrative that has several speakers and different aims, all of which combine to create a story that unsettles. At its heart is the house: cold, inhuman, and inexplicably predatory.

The central story is that of the Navidson Record, a fictional documentary about a family that moves into a house in Virginia—the house of the novel’s title. The house, known throughout the text as “the house on Ash Tree Lane,” is an impossible space: it slowly becomes larger on the inside than it is on the outside. While this is happening, the main characters, Will Navidson and his partner, Karen, are attempting to patch up their relationship by moving into the house with their children, Daisy and Chad. Navidson is a documentary film maker, and it is through this lens that this story is seen: throughout the Navidson Record, Will films the expansion of the house, which, as time goes on, becomes more monstrous: the house opens up into impossible hallways, unfathomable spaces that are incomprehensible and outwardly malicious—they rearrange themselves at will, all while endlessly repeating rooms that have no discernible differences and no function, other than to unsettle.

The second layer of the text is a “found” academic paper on The Navidson Record, written by a blind man known only as Zampanò, whose work is compiled into the main text of House of Leaves. Zampanò’s work is found by Johnny Truant, a young man who adds his own perspective to the text; Johnny’s narrative acts as an editor, but an unreliable one. Throughout the text, Johnny gets distracted, takes drugs, and causes the entire text to come under question. These competing and combined narratives explain the effects of impossible spaces, and how the fascination with them and with the uncanny is both enticing and destructive.

House of Leaves is more than just three narratives; Danielewski crafts the book in a way that disorients the reader and reinforces the unsettling, claustrophobic aspects of the text, so that the audience gains the perspective of the characters who are speaking. House of Leaves is an example of an ergodic text. Eric Hayot and Edward Wesp, drawing heavily from Espen Aarseth’s text Cybertext, define “ergodic literature,” saying that

‘nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text.’ In ergodic literature, ‘the experienced sequence of signs does not emerge in a fixed, predetermined order decided by the instigator of the work, but is instead one actualization among many potential routes within what we may call the event space of semiological possibility’ (“Aporia” 33).  To put it more simply: in certain kinds of texts, the reader makes choices that determine the sequence of signs that present themselves to be seen and read (Hayot 406)

Ergodic literature requires active effort from the reader in order to make meaning out of the text, rather than passively absorbing the story—this is demonstrated by the effort taken by the reader when Danielewski has pages printed upside-down, sideways, or backwards, as seen throughout the novel. This is also the reason why, whenever the word “house” is referenced, it appears in blue ink, and why, within this article, the house on Ash Tree Lane is referred to simply as the house. This is also seen wherever there is a reference to the Minotaur—within the text, the changing structure of the house creates a kind of labyrinth, in which a growling could be heard. Each time the Minotaur is referenced, it is in red text and struck through, creating a kind of artistic association with the Minotaur.  In addition to this, this text has each of its speakers writing in different fonts, with Johnny writing in Courier, Zampanò writing in Times New Roman, and with many comments as footnotes, then footnotes-of-footnotes. The text itself is disorienting, but the eccentricities transform the text from something fascinating into something terrifying, engaging not only the unheimlich of Freud, but the scintillation that is present when new forms of telling stories are made manifest.

That being said, the most fascinating aspect of the text is how the text itself reflects the house: the form reflects the function, and that function is to instill in the reader a sense of discomfort in the face of the familiar-yet-new—that is, the story and the physical object of the text itself elicits from the audience a sense of the unheimlich.

There is more to the sense of the unheimlich to the house than simply how the text tells the story—the story itself is unsettling. Chad, Navidson’s son, says, in the opening chapters, that he does not like the house on Ash Tree Lane: “‘Sometimes it’s just silent … No sound at all.'” Navidson asks whether that scares him, and the boy nods. “‘It’s like something’s waiting'” (Danielewski 9). Even before the house starts expanding, Chad feels like there is something wrong; afterwards, when Navidson and others explore the structure that opens up in his living room, the impossible hallways and chambers of the house seem to be hiding what is referenced as the Minotaur: there is an inexplicable growling that occurs in the cold of the house, which is presumed to be the walls rearranging themselves (Danielewski 111). However, the theme of the labyrinth and of the minotaur is nothing new: these tropes repeat in “House of Asterion” as well as “The Dionaea House.” Here, though, the Minotaur is a face to the house itself: it is easier to imagine a monster than a house being unheimlich; it is more acceptable to imagine some kind of intelligence rather than a completely alien force that is outwardly inimical. This is seen in the terror felt by Navidson, as explained in the text: “Was it an actual creature? Or just the flare sputtering out? And what about the sound? Was it made by a beast or just another reconfiguration of that absurd space; like the Khumbu Icefall; product of some particular physics?” (Danielewski 338). The questions betray the humanity behind Navidson and the team that explores the house: they ultimately do not know what the house is, and this brush with the unknown in a space that should not exist is unsettling, to say the least.

As Navidson and the rest explore the house, Zampanò notes in the meta-narrative the story of the Minotaur, and how the Minotaur of the house is a metaphor: “I am convinced Minos’ maze really serves as a trope for repression” (Danielewski 110). By putting a face to the house in the form of the Minotaur, the characters of Navidson and the others attempt to turn the revulsion of the unheimlich house into the spectacle of discovery. However, there is an aspect to the story that is unexplored by Navidson, which the Zampanò character examines through (fictionalized) conversations that Karen, Will Navidson’s partner, has with theorists: it comes to light that the only characters who enter into the new spaces of the house are men. In the meta-narrative of the text, Danielewski mocks the academic world by analyzing his own work through his characters; the most interesting of which is the fictionalized Camille Paglia.

Notice only men go into it. Why? Simple: women don’t have to. They know there’s nothing there and can live with that knowledge, but men must find out for sure. They’re haunted by that infinite hollow and its sense-making allure, and so they crave it, desire it, desire its end, its knowledge its—to use here a Strangelove-ian phrase—its essence. They must penetrate, invade, conquer, destroy, inhabit, impregnate and if necessary even be consumed by it. It comes down to what men lack. They lack the hollow, the uterine cavity, any creative life-yielding physiological incavation [sic]. The whole thing’s about womb envy or vagina envy, whatever you prefer. (Danielewski 357-8).

By stating it clearly, the connections between the house and the gendered house/home that Gillian Rose writes about become obvious. While it is apparent here, Danielewski’s way of presenting it suggests that this conclusion was meant to be occluded to the audience; the interview with the fictional Camille Paglia happens after the events that happen inside the house. Indeed, the house itself could be seen as a feminine symbol, with men, like Navidson, wanting to explore, “penetrate,” and ultimately, understand the house. In addition, Katharine Cox makes note of the link between the labyrinth and the mother: in the house, Navidson is trying to find something, something that evades him. The framing of the story has Navidson moving to the house on Ash Tree Lane in order to fix his relationship with Karen; his descent into the labyrinth of the house is a metaphor for finding his way back to the feminine influence of his life, his wife—”In feminised [sic] representations of the labyrinth the thread [that Theseus uses to escape the Cretan Labyrinth, that Navidson attempts to use to guide him back out of the impossible house] depicts the umbilical cord and so its breaking denotes the physical separation from the mother” (Cox 10). The link between the feminine and the labyrinth is something that will be explored when discussing “House of Asterion,” but the fact remains that the feminine influence of the labyrinth/house intersects with the masculine, penetrative perspective in a way that could only result in the expulsion of the invasive and the attempted destruction of the masculine. In House of Leaves, Danielewski creates a nesting story, one which, at its center, is about an invasion: it is a male perspective on a male exercise; it is the story of the sensation of the unheimlich as experienced by men who cannot and will not accept impossible, feminine spaces where their own (masculine) authority is supposed to reside. It could very easily be deemed a neurosis, one that manifests textually as the predatory space of the house.

The Dionaea House

Like House of Leaves, Eric Hesserier’s “The Dionaea House” is an ergodic text that deals directly with predatory spaces. Hesserier uses the same kind of epistolary format seen in texts like Dracula, but instead of being a printed text, it is a story that is purely electronic. In addition, Hesserier intended this to become a screenplay; the text is entirely composed of a transcribed communication between characters. The plot of the story revolves around the correspondences of Mark Condry with “Eric,” who could be understood to be the author inserting himself into the text. Throughout the communication between Eric, Mark, and others, the audience learns that Mark is investigating what led his friend to a murder-suicide. The text winds in on itself, linking to LiveJournal accounts and transcripts of emails and text messages, reinforcing the ergodic nature of the text. Eventually, Mark finds a house that Drew had been renting, and it comes to light that the house itself, like the house on Ash Tree Lane from House of Leaves, is an impossible space. It exists in two places at once, and, when Mark first sees it, he describes it as nothing particularly interesting, save for the language that is used: “The house is still there. It’s this generic one-story thing, bricks and siding. It must have been built at the same time as the other homes in the neighborhood, but it just looks older.” (Hesserier Sept. 16, 2004). It is noted here that, even in passing, the difference between a “house” and a “home” is referenced; as with the house on Ash Tree Lane, both of these spaces are not homes—they are spaces in which people attempt to reside, but spaces in which a family cannot be established. Hesserier does not make the distinction between “house” and “home” in “The Dionaea House,” but it is obvious that, even on a Freudian, subconscious level, the distinction is made between a safe/home space and a house-space.

As the story progresses, the theme of the predatory house develops, to the point where the house in question is named the “Dionaea House” by Mark in the September 21, 2004 entry. Mark notes that the house seems to be drawing him in, like a Venus Flytrap, and he notes “the fancy name for them is dionaea muscipula [sic].” The idea of the house itself being predatory is insidious: it is hinted at before it is referenced, but at this point, Mark still believes there is a logical reason behind what happened with Drew. This changes when Mark finds another house that is exactly like the first house: “STANDING IN FRONT OF HOUSE NOW.ITS THE SAME ONE. THE HOUSTON 
HOUSE. SAME MARKS ON ROOF. 
SAME FENCE DAMAGE. […] I RANG THE DOORBELL. NO 
ANSWER. ITS EXACTLY THE SAME
ERIC I DONT UNDERSTAND [sic]” (Hesserier Sept. 21, 2004, 4:14pm, 4:25pm). The framing is that of text messages from Mark, moments before he enters the house—and disappears. It is in these last few correspondences from Mark that the audience can read his visceral reaction to the unheimlich: it is impossible, and the house itself should not exist, but it does. It is uncanny for the simple reason that it is so commonplace, but is at once also completely alien.

Like the house on Ash Tree Lane, the Dionaea House(s) engage the unheimlich in a way that elicits a visceral reaction from the characters, as well as from the audience. Part of the horror is that there is an inherent doubling going on—also an aspect of the unheimlich. The doubling—of the endless, identical rooms in the house‘s labyrinthine substructure, or of the two Dionaea houses/singular bilocation of the one House—creates a link between the two story-structures. This link not only opens both to conversations about the effect of the unheimlich on the reader, but also to the influences of a gendered reading of the texts.

Just like in House of Leaves, the only people who venture into these predatory spaces are men. Drew, prior to his disappearance, had lived in the Dionaea House shortly, and Mark is last heard within the House. Unlike the house on Ash Tree Lane, however, the Dionaea House has a different connotation to its gendered spaces: while the house on Ash Tree Lane was malicious, it ultimately contained a void; the Dionaea House is hinted at being outwardly malicious and not simply a house—Loreen Mathers, a secondary character, states that “they aren’t houses” (Hesserier Sept. 20, 2005), a statement that reinforces the idea that these spaces are somehow something beyond human understanding, even with a gendered perspective. What separates the Dionaea House from Danielewski’s house is that Hesserier’s has a more violently feminine force within it: even the name, connected to the Venus Flytrap, conjures up images of insects being lured in and devoured. In order for the metaphor to work, if the House is the flytrap, then Drew and Mark, and subsequently any human to come near the House, are but insects. Whereas the house on Ash Tree Lane allows Navidson and others to enter into it and (almost always) leave, the Dionaea House shows signs of consuming those it traps—”Human arm and leg bones found in the street,” (Hesserier Oct. 1, 2004). Humans can reside in neither of these structures; the impossibility of the spaces, layered on top of the outward hostility that the houses exude, precludes any kind of inhabitation, especially by the male explorers who try to understand them.

 “…who was called Asterion”

Jorge Luis Borges’ “The House of Asterion” produces an interesting counterpoint to the spaces found within Hesserier and Danielewski’s works. It is here, too, that Freud’s ideas of doubling are found. While being referenced widely throughout the examination of House of Leaves and “The Dionaea House,” the doubling here is two-fold: the house of the title is the Cretan Labyrinth, which in and of itself is a doubling and folded-in structure; while that doubling has been discussed, there is also a sense of the doppelgänger where Asterion sees the “other Asterion”: “But of all the games, I prefer the one about the other Asterion. I pretend that he comes to visit me and that I show him my house” (Borges 139). Asterion, the speaker, is found to be the lone inhabitant of the house; he is named as the Minotaur from mythology by Theseus at the end of the story. This “other Asterion” is, in Freudian terms, a fractured self, a fragment of the ego that Asterion uses as a companion. The real access to the feeling of unheimlich, though, comes at the end of the story, when the reader understands Asterion to be the Minotaur from the Greek myth of Theseus. Until that point, Asterion is sympathetic: he is alone, he is the son of a queen, and he is free to leave his house if he so desires. The trouble, though, is that Asterion is unaware that he is a monster: “Another ridiculous falsehood is that I, Asterion, am a prisoner. Shall I repeat that there are no locked doors, shall I add that there are no locks? Besides, one afternoon I did step into the street,” only to have the people flee from his visage. “I cannot be confused with the populace, though my modesty might so desire” (Borges 138-9). Asterion does not know that he himself is the monster; instead, he lives within the Labyrinth, a creature whose entire life is within the unheimlich, so that he is not the monster, but those on the outside of the Labyrinth are.

“House of Asterion” complicates the argument here not only because the perspective of the uncanny is turned on its head—no, the gendered approach found within House of Leaves and “The Dionaea House” has to be reviewed in order to be found within Asterion’s house. Asterion’s mother plays a role in the text—in the epigram, Borges quotes Apollodorus, relating that, “the queen gave birth to a child who was called Asterion,” and then Asterion states on the next page that, “not for nothing was my mother a queen” (Borges 138-9). The emphasis on the queen in such a small space shows that Asterion is not the Minotaur of Danielewski: he is a creature who lives within the uninhabitable Labyrinth; he is the object of fear and something to be conquered—even if he proves to be more human than the Theseus who kills/”redeems” him. Borges’ Asterion lives within the confines of the feminine predatory space: note that the story is titled “The House of Asterion,” not simply “Asterion.” The main “character,” if it could be called that, is not the speaker that is Asterion, but the structure in which he is situated. He is the only male to successfully inhabit a predatory space, but even then, Asterion is living in just a “house,” not a “home.” Asterion is only able to exist because he is marginalized: he is the embodiment of the uncanny, while he lives in a house that could only be described as “uncanny,” and for that, Asterion needs to be redeemed.

Martin Tilney, a Senior Teacher at Sun Pacific College in Australia, notes that Asterion’s version of “redemption” is only possible through being murdered by Theseus: Asterion’s “redemption” is about transformation: “‘it is impossible to kill the Minotaur. At the very most we can sacrifice it, in other words transform it…’ In this paper, [Tilney suggests] that such a transformation is in fact the redemption that informs Asterion’s obsession, regardless of how fully he can comprehend it” (Tilney 55). In short, the redemption could be read as his release from being a monster—the transformation from the beast that lives within the unheimlich and can finally be, if not something transcendent, then at least something that is no longer uncanny.

“The Minotaur scarcely defended himself.”

The texts used here all show the underlying anxieties of the unheimlich, while also engaging the concepts of gendered and predatory spaces. While they each engage these points in different ways, it must be understood that the themes of gender underpin the rest: without the feminine imagery of Danielewski’s house, the quiet female malevolence of Hesserier’s Dionaea House, or the ever-twisting, infinite Labyrinth fit for the son of a queen found in Borges, the ideas of the predatory spaces would be for nothing. While Freud’s understanding of the unheimlich elucidates much in the discussion, the tableau which each of these stories share is that of the man invading a space in which he is not welcomed, and facing the consequences of that invasion. Without the gendered approach to examining these predatory spaces, there would be no differentiating these texts from simple haunted houses. It is also not an accident that each of these texts has the word “house” within it—the theme of the house, of what is inside versus outside, what is familiar and what is uncanny, is tied directly to the gendered perspective of these spaces, and how they become, once and for all, predatory spaces.


Works Referenced

Borges, Jorge Luis, ed. Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby, trans. J. E. I. “House of Asterion.” Labyrinths. New York: New Directions Books, 2007. p. 138-140. Print.

Chanen, Brian W. “Surfing The Text.” European Journal Of English Studies 11.2 (2007): 163-176. Academic Search Premier. Web.

Cox, Katharine. “What Has Made Me? Locating Mother in The Textual Labyrinth Of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House Of Leaves.” Critical Survey, 18.2 (2006): 4-15. Academic Search Premier. Web.

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

Freud, Sigmund, tr. Alix Strachey. “The Uncanny.” Imago: 1919. Electronic. Dec. 2013.

Hayot, Eric, and Edward Wesp. “Style: Strategy And Mimesis In Ergodic Literature.” Comparative Literature Studies 41.3 (2004): 404-423. Academic Search Premier. Web. Dec. 2013.

Hesserier, Eric. “The Dionaea House.” 2004. Electronic.

McCaffery, Larry, and Sinda Gregory. “Haunted House—An Interview With Mark Z. Danielewski.” Critique 44.2 (2003): 99. Academic Search Premier. Web.

Misselhorn, Catrin. “Empathy with Inanimate Objects And The Uncanny Valley.” Minds & Machines 19.3 (2009): 345-359. Academic Search Premier. Web. Dec. 2013.

Oxford English Dictionary. “husband, n.”. OED Online. September 2013. Oxford University Press. December 2013. Web.

Rose, Gillian. “A Politics of Paradoxical Space.” Spatial Divisions and Other Spaces. p. 136-160. Electronic.

Tilney, Martin. “Waiting for Redemption in ‘The House of Asterion’: A Stylistic Analysis.” Open Journal of Modern Linguistics Vol. 2, No. 2. June 2012. Electronic. Dec. 2013.


Footnote 1.

This poses an issue as to how to cite what is being said; for the duration of citation of this source, since each “entry” appears as a different web address, the quotation will be referenced by Hesserier’s name and the date of the correspondence within the text. The main citation in the Works Referenced regards the first page of the complex series of documents.

Footnote 2.

Admittedly, this could be a quirk of translation—the word “Casa” is used in the original Spanish, but the connotations of the word are lost when it is translated into the English term “house.”