By Katie Lewis
Growing up, I was a voracious reader. I always completed the reading challenges to get my personal pan pizza from Pizza Hut. I circled at least one book every month when we got the Scholastic book magazine back in ye olden days before the internet.
And every summer, I completed the summer reading challenge at the library. While I read just about everything, however, it was the books that went against the grain that inspired me the most to put pen to paper myself.
Fairies With Attitude
The first book I can remember really lighting a fire in me was Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer. Though it’s a series, I’ll only focus on the first book here. Artemis Fowl is a twelve-year-old genius who kidnaps a fairy to hold for ransom. That plot synopsis alone twists how fairies are typically treated in literature. It serves as a reversal of the changeling storyline, where a fairy kidnaps a human child.
There’s also something so distinctly genre-breaking in the idea that someone would hold a magical creature hostage for money as if this was Die Hard with magic.
That’s not the only surprising thing about the world Eoin Colfer built within Artemis Fowl. While we might automatically associate fairies, elves, pixies, dwarves, etc., with fantasy, the truth is that this book is a fusion of science-fiction and fantasy. The hostage, Holly Short, is part of a S.W.A.T.-like police unit called LEP Recon (as in, leprechaun).
While she and many of her fellow officers possess magic, they don’t use it for everything. They carry guns, have jet packs instead of wings, and even a centaur on staff who is essentially James Bond’s Q. The book’s magical creatures rely far more heavily on sci-fi gizmos than any magic.
I was about Artemis’ age when I first read the book, and it blew me away. It wasn’t the first book I’d ever read that blended fantasy and sci-fi, but it was by far the first one that did so with such precision. There are arcane rituals, stun grenades, mesmerizing stares, and high-tech alarm systems, and somehow none of it feels out of place.
Artemis Fowl breaks all the rules of planting a story firmly in a single genre, and it does so seamlessly. Reading that book opened my eyes to the fact that there are broader possibilities in the world of literature. I wanted to discover those unknown shores with my own words.
Breaking all the Walls
As I grew older, I continued to be drawn to books that blended themes and broke genre barriers. The more I read and learned about literary theory, the more I wanted to bend and twist and break all the rules to bring something utterly fresh into the world. I’ve always felt more at home challenging norms like the Hero’s Journey rather than following them.
Then, when I was seventeen, I was introduced to a book that genuinely shattered every rule I’d ever known about prose.
Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves left me staggered. There are still parts of that book that have taken up permanent residence in my brain, nearly fifteen years after the first time I read it. Our hero, Johnny Truant, discovers his recently deceased neighbor Zampanò’s literary critique of a documentary film.
So three stories are happening at once: Johnny’s life as he reads the manuscript; Zampanò’s film analysis; and the core plot of the documentary, entitled The Navidson Record. That story revolves around one family exploring an impossible house that breaks all the laws of space, time, and reality. It becomes apparent that the otherness that place had not only infected Zampanò in the course of his critique but further goes on to affect Johnny’s life as he reads.
If that wasn’t enough, the text also has multiple layers of meaning. House of Leaves is an example of hypertext in printed literature. The layout and font choices add additional layers of significance to the story throughout the book. For instance, after an initial introduction from Johnny, his story is contained within footnotes that span dozens of pages.
Be warned, you will need several bookmarks to read this book. Also, the fonts differ between Zampanò’s literary analysts, which is in typewriter font, and the story of The Navidson Record, in general, Times New Roman.
But wait, there’s more! In addition, every time the word house is used at any point throughout the book, the word is blue. Likewise, Zampanò often makes allusions to the Greek myth of the minotaur in the labyrinth, and any such sections are printed in red and struck out. As the non-euclidian influence of the house grows, the text itself warps as well, sometimes running sideways across the page or being interrupted by shapes of negative space.
In this way, the text indirectly breaks the fourth wall and makes the reader feel as if the house is reaching through the film, through Zampanò’s words, Johnny’s life, and our world.
Reading House of Leaves left me uncomfortable in the best possible way. More than that, it elevated the idea of what the novel could be to me. If I had ever wondered how far a person can take prose, Danielewski gave me the answer: as far as I want and then some.
Now, I’m not saying I want to run out and write something quite as experimental as House of Leaves. Mark Z. Danielewski is a dark wizard for being able to keep all of that straight, as far as I’m concerned. Much like my experience with Artemis Fowl, I was left with an itch to try new things.
I’m a person who wants to write stories that no one has ever seen before. I want to write stories that leave someone stumped for a minute at a dinner party as they wonder over what description to give to recommend my books to their friends. I want to be surprising in all the right ways. Each time I read a book like that, it only energizes me to write my own stories that are just left of center. I love feeling familiar and strange simultaneously and try to bring it into everything I write.
I will be forever thankful to Eoin Colfer, Mark Z. Danielewski, and so many others for feeding that fire within me.