House of Leaves is the debut novel by American author Mark Z. Danielewski, published in March 2000 by Pantheon Books. A bestseller, it has been translated into a number of languages, and is followed by a companion piece, The Whalestoe Letters.
The format and structure of House of Leaves is unconventional, with unusual page layout and style, making it a prime example of ergodic literature. It contains copious footnotes, many of which contain footnotes themselves, including references to fictional books, films or articles. Some pages contain only a few words or lines of text, arranged in strange ways to mirror the events in the story, often creating both an agoraphobic and a claustrophobic effect. The novel is also distinctive for its multiple narrators, who interact with each other in elaborate and disorienting ways.
Why this book is probably one of the best horrors I’ve ever read
It was a hard choice, I have a strong taste and a good stomach, but no other book has made me feel so trapped and so desperate to find an escape like this one. American Psycho might be good for gore and different haunting books like Amitiville Horror and The Haunting of Ashburn House * Darcy Coates and 77 Shadow street * Dean Koontz are ok for depicting houses with a dark past, but this book – this book is special.
Essentially two books in one, the eccentric and mad genius author’s 2000 debut takes the age-old haunted house setup, rips it apart, and then pieces it back together as a kind of Frankenstein’s monster of a novel. And the final product is both invigorating and mind-blowing enough to make reading another novel the same way again impossible once page 709 is done.
Imagine Paranormal Activity (the movie) in book format. Everything is documented and is not documented badly at all. There are references to Mircea Eliade and the myth of the labyrinth – where you go in and don’t come out. You get lost. You lose yourself. And once you have lost yourself you can find yourself and you come out as a new person. Murakami has done this in Kafka on the Shore and touched on it in The Wind-up Bird chronicle when the descent into the well happened.
For some reason, you will no longer be the person you believed you once were. You’ll detect slow and subtle shifts going on all around you, more importantly shifts in you. Worse, you’ll realize it’s always been shifting, like a shimmer of sorts, a vast shimmer, only dark like a room. But you won’t understand why or how.
How it all started
In Zampanò’s apartment, Truant discovers a manuscript written by Zampanò that turns out to be an academic study of a documentary film called The Navidson Record, though Truant says he can find no evidence that the film or its subjects ever existed.
The rest of the novel incorporates several narratives, including Zampanò’s report on the (possibly fictional) film; Truant’s autobiographical interjections; a small transcript of part of the film from Navidson’s brother, Tom; a small transcript of interviews of many people regarding The Navidson Record by Navidson’s partner, Karen; and occasional brief notes by unidentified editors, all woven together by a mass of footnotes. There is also another narrator, Truant’s mother, whose voice is presented through a self-contained set of letters titled The Whalestoe Letters. Each narrator’s text is printed in a distinct font, making it easier for the reader to follow the occasionally challenging format of the novel (Truant in Courier New in the footnotes, and the main narrative in Times New Roman in the American version).
House of Leaves is told in myriad ways, including layers of footnotes, sections with color-blocked words, fake interviews with real celebrities, and passages that require you to transcribe the first letter of each sentence to reveal another chapter hidden within.
Zampanò is the blind author of The Navidson Record. Danielewski made Zampanò blind as a reference to blind authors Homer and Jorge Luis Borges. Little to no information is given explicitly about Zampanò’s past, blindness, or personality but it’s possible that through his blindness, he was more acutely aware of his surroundings, had developed a sixth sense and could feel the claustrophobic book surroundings better. His death brings Johnny, the reader of this book, in contact with the Navidson record.
Johnny Truant, a sex-crazed, good-for-nothing tattoo artist, reads Zampano’s notes and the Navidson record description and frequently goes off on morbid and drug-infused tangents. As he begins to organize Zampanò’s manuscripts, his personal footnotes detail the deterioration of his own life with analogous references to alienation and insanity: once a trespasser to Zampanò’s mad realm, Truant seems to become more comfortable in the environment as the story unfolds. He even has hallucinations that parallel those of Zampanò and members of the house search team when he senses “…something inhuman…” behind him.
Truant notes the baffling fact that since Zampanò (like Borges) was blind, he could never have seen The Navidson Record himself.
The Navidson Record
Why did god create a dual universe? So he might say ‘Be not like me. I am alone.’ And it might be heard.
The mounting terror of the Navidson family starts with the discovery of a new door in a house they just moved into. The door was not there a day before and when opened, seems to go into a new place in the house. After a few meters in, all light disappears and Will Navidson realizes that the house is actually a gateway into another dimension. He plans on documenting the entire process as well as documenting the effects the new door has on his family and especially on his wife, Karen.
It’s not very noticeable at first, but the entire book is actually a love story. It’s the life of a couple as seen through the eyes of a camera. It’s the distancing and the re-kindling of a flame long lost.
Passion has little to do with euphoria and everything to do with patience. It is not about feeling good. It is about endurance. Like patience, passion comes from the same Latin root: pati. It does not mean to flow with exuberance. It means to suffer.
Karen is Will’s partner and a former fashion model. She suffers from crippling claustrophobia, and throughout the novel refuses to enter the labyrinth within her house. She also seems to be extremely insecure regarding her relationship with Will; he is ‘her rock,’ though it is confirmed that she had at least three long-term affairs during the course of their relationship.
Maturity, one discovers, has everything to do with the acceptance of ‘not knowing.
Curiously, the events of the novel only seem to reduce her dependence on Will (as well as contributing to the eventual dissolution of their relationship). It is speculated that, during Karen’s childhood, her stepfather once took Karen and her sister into a barn in their backyard. He put one sister in a well while he raped the other, and vice versa. This event is widely considered to be the cause of her crippling claustrophobia. However, several footnotes and comments about the incident question this claim (another of many examples of the use of an unreliable narrator in the novel). In the aftermath of the events in the house, she becomes an unlikely editor, approaching many real characters for comment on The Navidson Record, albeit comment within the fictional universe of the novel. Eventually, she is reunited with Navidson after she conquers her claustrophobia and saves him from the abyss of the labyrinth.
Losing the possibility of something is the exact same thing as losing hope and without hope nothing can survive.
“Lovecraftian” has become shorthand for tentacles and elder gods, but Danielewski’s debut novel nails a different component of the genre grandfather’s legacy: true madness. The labyrinthine structure of this tome (over 700 pages) constantly calls into question the sanity of not just the protagonists, but of the person flipping the pages, too.
Everything is not as it seems. While working on the house one day, Navidson discovers that it measures three quarters of an inch longer on the inside than on the outside.
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.
As Navidson investigates this phenomenon, he finds that the internal measurements of the house are somehow larger than external measurements. Initially there is less than an inch of difference, but as time passes the interior of the house seems to expand while maintaining the same exterior proportions.
the house, the halls, and the rooms all become the self-collapsing, expanding, tilting, closing, but always in perfect relation to the mental state of the individual
A third and more extreme change asserts itself: a dark, cold hallway opens in an exterior living room wall that should project outside into their yard, but does not.
Navidson films the outside of the house to show where the hallway should be but clearly is not. The filming of this anomaly comes to be referred to as “The Five and a Half Minute Hallway”. This hallway leads to a maze-like complex, starting with a large room (the “Anteroom”), which in turn leads to a truly enormous space (the “Great Hall”), a room primarily distinguished by an enormous spiral staircase which appears, when viewed from the landing, to spiral down without end. There is also a multitude of corridors and rooms leading off from each passage.
No one ever really gets used to nightmares.
All of these rooms and hallways are completely unlit and featureless, consisting of smooth ash-gray walls, floors, and ceilings.
There is something very wrong. The Navidson Record becomes a vérité horror film as Will and his friends try to explore the anomalous space, which rearranges itself periodically with a roar, and expands into terrifying volumes of darkness.
And among all of this, the love between Will and Karen seems to grow stronger, and in the end, strong enough for her to come in after him.
Some people reflect light, some deflect it, you by some miracle, seem to collect it.
You shall be my roots and I will be your shade, though the sun burns my leaves. You shall quench my thirst and I will feed you fruit, though time takes my seed. And when I’m lost and can tell nothing of this earth you will give me hope. And my voice you will always hear. And my hand you will always have. For I will shelter you. And I will comfort you. And even when we are nothing left, not even in death, I will remember you.
House of Leaves isn’t a David Foster Wallace-level challenge for readers, but it does require an investment—and entanglement—that some may be too scared to allow, for fear that they might start hearing a growling in the walls, too…
You’ll need a hard drink once the book is finished, but you’ll also have just experienced sheer brilliance.
The apparent echoing of solitary words reminds us that acoustical echoing in empty places can be a very common auditory emblem, redolent of gothic novels as it may be, of isolation and often unwilling solitude.