Something in me shies away from fan culture. Even for things I really love, I can’t quite bring myself to admit the degree to which I’m a fan. I’ll say I’m a fan of something but often downplay its importance to me in order to save face if I’ve misread the reason for a mention. I find myself walking an imaginary, ill-thought-out line of shrugs and nods rather than my real, very exuberant opinion. I’ll own up to a few contradictory things about my squeamishness:
All of which is arbitrary, inauthentic and knee-jerk…and I know that. Only a few topics tend to override my caution: good books, traveling with friends and roadside attractions. So whatever else it brings, I’ll forever thank the internet for pulling together my fandom-overrides into one sublime event: the Gathering of American Gods, fan event bar none. …Or bar some. Or most. I wouldn’t know. I avoid fan events.
In early 2010 my good friend Jaime, who lives in Durham, sent me a copy of a post on Neil Gaiman’s remarkable blog. An outpouring of fan interest prompted him to agree to a special event to kick off the 10th anniversary for his novel, “American Gods”. What’s more, the serious fans reached out to a key location in the book itself, a roadside attraction outside Madison, Wisconsin called The House on the Rock. With the blessing of the attraction staff and Neil Himself, suddenly a geeky daydream was made a reality in a weekend-long, fan-led book-appreciation event with Neil as the guest of honor.
In the House itself.
Back in 2005 Jaime and her husband Willie visited the House during a Wisconsin roadtrip and sent an earnest, very-impressed review that renewed my interest. I filed it away in the “awesome trip ideas” category, hoping another purpose would take me to Madison and I could swing by for an afternoon. Jaime and Willie also speculated about a return visit to the House, mostly so I could meet them there. But Gaiman’s anonymous (capital-F) Fans brought all the threads together in the space of a few days. We followed developments through Neil’s blog.
…And just before Halloween I hopped an airplane to Madison with more costume than clothing in my bag. I prepped my internal (little-f) fan for the passion of other attendees. Jaime and Willie met me at the airport and I drove our rental Prius out into Wisconsin.
"So what is this place?" asked Shadow, as they walked through the parking lot toward a low, unimpressive wooden building.
"This is a roadside attraction," said Wednesday. "One of the finest. Which means it is a place of power."
"It’s perfectly simple," said Wednesday. "In other countries, over the years, people recognized the places of power. Sometimes it would be a natural formation, sometimes it would just be a place that was, somehow, special. They knew something important was happening there, that there was some focusing point, some channel, some window to the Immanent. And so they would build temples or cathedrals, or erect stone circles, or…well, you get the idea."
I won’t belabor this with a play-by-play yet I do want to mention that Spring Green itself is a the quintessential midwestern town. Our first day in town we walked from the lovely Usonian Inn on the edge of Spring Green into town for breakfast. I oogled the requisite greens, the red oak-tree-lined streets, the pie-oriented converted railroad station diner, the disarmingly friendly townsfolk and mid-century buildings repurposed as best they could be as the modern world rolls onward. It is a destination in its own right.
Fittingly, Spring Green has two nutty neighbors.
Directly over the river from Spring Green is the top-shelf attraction of Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s ancestral estate and original architecture+philosophy school. The campus is made up of FLW-redesigned buildings situated throughout a winding river valley, the layout neatly lending themselves to pricey official tours in branded minibuses. (Wikipedia can detail the rest for you.) We felt obliged to take a shorter tour, to savor the contrasts. On one hand, Taliesin features amazing buildings that defies even a strong FLW inoculation. On the other hand, the cult-like fans leading and attending our tour were unsettling. *After* we left, Jaime read about the axe murders of FLW’s mistress, her kids and others in the murderer-set house fire in Taliesin proper…which the tour fails to mention entirely. It was the weekend of Halloween—we could handle the macabre for a bit of honesty, truth be told.
Looming mockingly above and past Taliesin is the House on the Rock. Oh, gods, the House. There’s no good explanation. Twenty minutes in the door and my muttered “how?s” and “why?s” died on my lips, finding no reconciliation with what I saw. Jaime and Willie thoroughly enjoyed my stupefaction, familiar with the experience from their own visit.
The House started as a vacation home, built illegally(?) on top of a promontory-like local picnic rock overlooking the Wyoming river valley and Taliesin. Alex Jordan—less of an architect and more like “Frank Lloyd Wright’s evil twin” (says a tee-shirt)—started the original House thinking it an artist’s retreat, where guests could recharge amid the mid-60s “oriental” decor made of paper windows, pile carpeting and low-lying teak furniture. Anecdote says that FLW saw it and roundly rejected Alex Jordan’s “gift”, unintentionally fueling the one-sided rivalry to epic heights. Now the House sees more visitors than Taliesin each year.
Thankfully, the early veneer of oriental bachelor pad lasts only a short while. Then the collection’s earnestness takes on a life of its own.
What’s singular about the House collection is that it has no value. A good portion is crap. What’s priceless is unmarked. Very, very few items have exhibition cards and they tell you nothing helpful. The rooms are themed by overlapping fantasies rather than chronology or style. Dolls drift into guns into buttons into swords into barbershops into monstrous whales. Then massive mechanical orchestras, frankensteined mannequins, carousels, more dolls, matchbox collections, hearses, miniature circuses and pipe organs. The complex covers a handful of huge, custom-built buildings connected by a maze of walkways and an “infinity room” of glass projecting from the top the Rock over the valley floor. It defies description. Even Neil’s passage in “American Gods” falls away to otherworldly magic. Other reviewers seem to circle around inchoate americana, finding a few touchstones to maintain sanity.
My best synopsis, which builds on Gaiman’s theory in the book, is that America’s collecting instinct found a amplification point in the House. Since Jordan started charging the earliest curious locals a few cents to poke around, the House has grown into a destination resort as its notoriety spread. It feeds on its own novelty. The House seeks out (and receives unsolicited) shipments of stuff from people all over the world. A list of the weirdest items doesn’t do it justice.
They had walked for what felt like several miles when they came to a room called the Mikako, one wall of which was a nineteenth-century pseudo-Oriental nightmare, in which beetle-browed mechanical drummers banged cymbals and drums while staring out from their dragon-encrusted lair. Currently, they were majestically torturing Saint-Saens’s Danse Macabre.… [It] came to a tempestuous and discordant end. That all the artificial instruments were ever so slightly out of tune added to the otherworldliness of the place. A new piece began.
The House may defy description but the weekend events were concrete:
My first, slack-jawed visit to the House came before the Reading. We only made it to the Carousel room—world’s tallest carousel, not one horses head [sic]!—before closing time. The staff set up a large white reception tent just outside the ticket building for the reading, one of those tents for outdoor wedding receptions. Neil read the chapter of “American Gods” describing the House while we huddled on folding chairs and bleachers and nursed New Glarus(!) beers. I got chills more than a few times, mostly due to delight. Hearing his descriptions of the very things I saw that day was truly wonderful. Sharing it with such a great crowd amplified it.
Madison has a great halloween costume tradition in its own right. And of course the fans attending the event were heavily weighted toward locals. So the bar for costumes was quite high *before* adding in the collective fan enthusiasm where lit, goth, steampunk, graphic novel and mythology circles overlap. With Gaiman judging, the line for contest entrants was longer than those not contesting. There were many duplicates, which gave rise to debates who’s Lucile Ball, Mad Sweeney, Bast, Thunderbird, Coraline’s Mom or Delirium was the best. (Jaime was a solid Lucy. Willie was the best Mad Sweeney in attendance. I was a generic Norsewoman, sporting my favorite little horns. Yes I was the weakest link but at least I was warm in a giant fake-fur vest.)
This is a bit of fan arcana but the reason for contests like the scavenger hunt, raffle and costumes was because the winners got to ride the Carousel. Only one person ever has before: the mechanic who runs the thing, testing to see if they could even offer that as a prize. Riding the Carousel is a key scene in “American Gods” and must have been absolutely amazing for those who won a ride. Now I aspire to be that kind of Fan.
Without going into a listing of my favorite memories, I’ll close with the best. After the costume contest, I think many of us expected the Halloween party to stick to the tent. But the House had scattered bartenders, DJs, live bands, dinner buffets and [not particularly gifted] fortune tellers throughout the second phase, which included the Carousel, the Organ room, Travel Hall, the Street of Yesterday and endless stuff in between. Oh, and the Leviathan (which I give up on describing). Beverages in hand, we wandered the house in full costume, surrounded by fellow awe-struck Fans and just about the best party atmosphere ever. It was a once-in-a-lifetime event over which I’m still giddy.
And still struggling to describe.