It is just around Clermont, Iowa where the terrain starts to change. All of a sudden there are hills again – Iowa sort of goes, west to east, rolling hills, occasional hills, flat, occasional hills, rolling hills, HILLS and then there are cliffs – bluffs! It is crazy but I swear you can tell the difference between cliffs and bluffs even though they are really the same thing! – and there, boom, is the Mississippi River. I was excited and a little sad, to cross the Mississippi and be back in the East. Symbolic! I crossed at Prairie du Chien. I actually wanted to spend some time in Prairie du Chien because, hey, I like prairies, I like chiens, I want to see this Dog of the Prairie, but alas, time was pressing and I was bound for the House on the Rock. So I just drove through it. And then I drove through a bunch of other little towns (it was Yard Sale Day in Waukesha) and windy roads and inexplicable swamps (what the hell with the swamps, Wisconsin?) and up and down through the woods. Wisconsin is much much more wooded than Iowa and poorer, or it looks poorer, and the minute you cross the Mississippi there is more roadkill. What is that about? Are the scavengers of the West so much more efficient? Or what? I noticed it on the way out as well.
And then I got to the House on the Rock.
WHOA MY PEOPLE NOW YOU NEED TO DROP EVERYTHING YOU ARE DOING AND HEAD TO HOUSE ON THE ROCK. It is JUST AS WEIRD as Meow Wolf but not as artsy. It is – really strange. It is possibly the strangest place I have ever been and that includes being stoned out of my brain as a teenager in the old Civil War / WWII tunnels on Sullivan’s Island South Carolina. House on the Rock, depending on who you talk to or believe, is either one eccentric genius’s completely authentic quest to Build the Perfect Home and while at it, the World’s Largest Carousel and also some incredibly fucking creepy automatons OR it’s a completely calculated tourist trap created by a clear eyed (if also eccentric because, JESUS, that place is WEIRD) team of ultra capitalists. I find I do not really care. I want to go back. When (not if, when) you go, plan on being there for the whole day. I had three hours and it was so not enough. You don’t need to bring drugs; you will start feeling like you have taken a half hit of microdot about twenty minutes in. Not that I would know what that feels like. Heh.
There are a lot of parts to it. There is an Introduction part, which you have my permission to skip: it’s the most normal part, added later and hence boring, although hey I did like the shrine to the bookkeeper. There is the eponymous House, which is sort of a 1960s bachelor pad writ large. It has red shag carpeting and lots of fireplaces and faux Tiffany glass. There is a library full of moldering books (I did not like that much) and a glass case full of dead birds and a lit up coffee table of glass paperweights. There is a lot of stone, jaggedly laid on edge in the 70s back to nature way. Everything is very very dark although there are holes straight up to the sky in several rooms. There is a lot of “exotic” Asian tourist sculpture stuff, including a couple of geisha dolls in plastic boxes that are exactly the same as the one my dad brought me back from his business trip to Japan in 1973 (I dismantled it and got in trouble; I hadn’t gotten the memo about how it was supposed to be only looked at, not played with.)
There is an Infinity Room which creaks alarmingly when you walk out towards, well, infinity. I had to beat a hasty retreat. That is where you get your first taste of the musical automatons. Tiny creepy mannikins playing tinny music in baroquely hideous surroundings! This is when the acid kicks in, too and also when you sort of begin to notice that House on the Rock just miiiight not meet the strictest health and safety ratings out there. If you are alarmed by that sort of thing than this is not the tourist trap for you, alas. I had a few bad moments, myself.
Then you leave the house, go through many stairs and winding corridors and LO you are in the beginning of the several huge metal warehouses you noted on the way in while you weren’t admiring the giant dragon jars. Yeah, giant dragon jars, whatever. AT THE HOUSE ON THE ROCK GIANT DRAGON JARS ARE JUST, LIKE, NOTHING. NORMAL. Once you are in the the warehouses it’s all over. Reality is gone. There’s a whole scrimshaw museum with obsessive shipwreck information. Like, three floors of shipwrecks and WHY YES OF COURSE THERE IS A GIANT SQUID WITH HUGE TEETH DO YOU EVEN NEED TO ASK. There’s a whole sort of turn of the 19th century town only SUPER CREEPY, all in the dark, in the dark, the dark dark dark. There are WAY TOO MANY LIFE SIZED AUTOMATONS PLAYING TINNY TERRIFYING MUSIC. There are tiny automatons too. And crazy giant antique music boxes playing huge brass cylinders. And oh, there are dolls. Lots and lots of dolls. Dolls who want to . . talk to you. Dollhouses. Each with a doll in the doorway, turning to face you. There are ramps and more staircases and those egg head creatures that were an incredibly frightening plot device in a Tim Powers novel. I knew exactly what they were as soon as I spotted them and they did not make me comfortable. There are old signs. Old neon. Old cars. More automata. More and more automata.
And then there is a new warehouse and the carousel. MY UNHOLY GAWDS THE CAROUSEL. I have read American Gods, oh yes, and I am waiting for the second season of the TV show and that is all I will say. Dear gods. And, if the big carousel is not enough – it’s enough! It is enough! Dread cthulhu fthagn I confess! Eat me first! – then there is the doll carousel. DOLL CAROUSEL. And the circus room, circuses, circuses on and on, painted acrobats with curiously flat faces, taxidermied weasels playing organs and then sleighs, the sleighs, the sleighs of winter. . . and the mannequins with the angel wings and more mannequins SO MANY MANNEQUINS and automata and they are all turning, looking, playing and it is dark
dark and red
and oh HELP. It was actually too much. I got overwhelmed and had to get out, to the ersatz Japanese garden and the koi and more dragon jars and, thank quite a different god, the Gifte Shoppe. I got a hoodie – and a pair of cheap gloves that would come in extremely handy, thank you, peculiar foreknowledge House on the Rock. I have no idea why they were selling cheap gloves but, hey, House on the Rock, there is no reason, there only is. It’s a pretty cheap Chinese hoodie, too. But I like it and, despite the DARK and the RED – so dark so red so mannequins the tinny music the turning endless turning turning – I still want to go back. No I really really do. I will go anytime. But possibly not alone, next time.
When you go be prepared. It’s huge and overwhelming and did I mention CREEPY and WEIRD? Now I like those two things but honestly, I wouldn’t bring young children to the House on the Rock. Older kids, sure, awesome, but little kids? No. Just no. It sounds like it’s for kids – dolls! Carousels! – but it isn’t. At all. I couldn’t tell you who it IS for – me, I guess, and other aging ex druggies and goths – but I do know it isn’t kids.
But YOU? You should go. And I will go with you. And perhaps, perhaps. . we will stay. Ea!