Review: Zac’s Haunted House by Dennis Cooper

Review: Zac’s Haunted House by Dennis Cooper

kiddiepunk press, 2015

In writing this review, I began to wonder – how exactly does one explain a ‘gif’? Technically, a gif is a file format for pictures, and is unique in that it supports both static and animated images. This is a neat little definition, but I don’t think it really gives justice to the breadth and the impact of the gif as we know and use it.  Spend time on Tumblr or Buzzfeed, and you’ll encounter dozens and dozens of these little animated clips of all different varieties. They’ve even entered our lexicon in the form of the ‘reaction gif,’ often conveying a sentiment that words alone cannot.

Gifs have become every bit as integral and ubiquitous to our technological lives as emojis and memes, and Dennis Cooper has harnessed their innate storytelling capacities in his work, Zac’s Haunted House.

Zac’s Haunted House is Cooper’s tenth novel, though I am not sure if I would personally classify this work as a ‘novel.’ Instead, it strikes me more like an anthology of comic strips, with longer story threads weaving through some of the gif combinations but all able to stand on their own. In using gifs, Cooper has set himself up with an interesting limitation – though there seems to be a near endless number of gifs, they are nevertheless already created, taking on the status of ‘found object.’ Cooper is forced to work with what the internet has given him, creating narratives by juxtaposing multiple, unique looping narratives until, joined together, they become something greater – like the Power Rangers joining together to create the Megazord, or if you want to be a little more highbrow, like the favorite surrealist game Exquisite Corpse.

This may be a more apt analogy, as Zac’s Haunted House is drenched in an eerie surrealism. The title alone sets the expectation of spookiness, and the disjointed, looping nature of the gifs adds to this sense of creepiness, of strangeness. Cooper combines multiple gifs into stacked images, creating a complete picture out of the multiple different fractured clips of each of the gifs.

It invites you not to puzzle through the logic of its storyline, as one would in a more traditional narrative, but to give oneself over to the experience of reading it, to embrace the feelings it creates.

It seems that the message or the narrative created by the sequence of gifs seemed to shift and change as one scrolls through each individual chapter.

Chapter 2 begins with multiple gifs depicting ‘falling’ – a CGI Humpty Dumpty rocking on his heels, dripping blood falling down the screen, a clip from a home movie of a little girl falling down the stairs. As you scroll down the page, the images fall down with you.  Gifs by nature tend to be designed to be funny, and Cooper knows this – the chapters and sequences are often punctuated by a goofy image or two. After a particularly gory sequence of several gifs of people bleeding from various orifices, there is a one of a T.Rex collapsing on the ground with the text “#dead” flashing over it.

It is in these moments of dark humor that Cooper’s novel-in-gifs really excels and becomes something truly great. Gifs so often incorporate pop culture that there is an understood context to them, one that the gif alone may never really be separate from. In Chapter 4, there is a moment of true brilliance that made me stop and consider this combination for several minutes at a time. Two gifs of a very young Aaron Carter singing and dancing silently, sandwiching two simple gifs of white text on a black background, one flashing the words “Kill Yourself” and the other cycling through phrases like “I am ugly,” “I am worthless,” “I am depressed,” before flashing “I am nothing.” After watching for long enough, it starts to look like Aaron is mouthing these words himself, shouting them, and this dissonance of the blonde haired 90s pop star screaming such teen angst is undeniably, on some level, quite funny.

Dennis Cooper’s Zac’s Haunted House is like a new kind of graphic novel. Many of the techniques and effects at work are reminiscent of those used in comics and graphic novels, but by using these moving clips, Cooper is able to take the genre to the next level. But perhaps most importantly, he is refusing the be constrained by definitions of genre or medium.

Zac’s Haunted House is a bold step forward for internet literature, striving to incorporate aspects of its traditional predecessors while bravely forging its own path forward.
PS – while Zac’s Haunted House does not include any music or sound, the rich atmosphere it creates, as well as the incorporation of moving pictures, seems to lend itself to an accompanying soundtrack. I played around with listening to different songs, and I loved the pairing of the novel to the song ‘Not in Love’ by Crystal Castles feat. Robert Smith – but try your own!


H. Tucker Rosebrock ( is a Boston-based writer, speaker, part-time superhero. His work can be found in WIRED magazine, Wellesley Underground, and CheapPop Lit.

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