“Have you heard about that book that’s supposed to drive you insane?” The first time I caught wind of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, I was sitting in a coffee shop with a friend. We were discussing horror novels when she brought up the supposedly sanity-shattering story, and neither of us had read it at the time. Close to ten years passed, but the memory of her question stuck with me and led me to finally pick up a copy of my own. While my mind is disappointingly intact after a readthrough, I still found it to be one of the most unsettling and unconventional haunted house stories ever written.
House of Leaves is a story in layers, each created by a different character. At its core, we have The Navidson Record, a documentary about renowned photojournalist Will Navidson, his girlfriend Karen Green, and their two children moving into a new home. Things take an eerie turn when Navidson discovers that his house is one quarter of an inch larger on the inside than the outside. When the couple finds a new closet in their bedroom, perfectly black and utterly featureless, they start to get scared. The nightmare truly begins, however, when another door appears in their living room and leads to dark, twisting hallways filled with doors and every indication that someone or something dwells there. The majority of the book is written as something like an academic paper on the Navidson Record by the blind recluse Zampanò.
After his death, Zampanò’s mad scrawlings are found by a tattoo shop apprentice named Johnny Truant. Truant compiles his notes into the very book we’re holding in our own hands and submits it to a publisher, adding his own interjections and troubled backstory to the text as he grows more and more obsessed with Will Navidsons’s labyrinthine hallways and the possibility that whatever lived there has caught notice of him too. The most recent edition of the book includes a third narrator, Johnny’s mother, writing to her son from an asylum in The Whalestoe Letters (originally a separate companion book, now added as an appendix).
The story itself, while somewhat tangled, was very eerie and enjoyable. The characters are all very well done, and watching their personalities and relationships as they’re touched, directly and indirectly, by the house is fascinating. As a former war photojournalist, Will Navidson is dealing with the dual nature of his trauma and his inescapable drive to explore and photograph the world’s darkest and most dangerous corners. Karen, by contrast, has to deal with her claustrophobia in ways far worse than she ever thought possible. Even their children are affected by the house, bringing home pages of entirely blackened paper when asked to draw their home at school.
I found Johnny Truant’s part of the narrative a little less compelling at times. While it was cool to see the effect his growing obsession with The Navidson Record had on him, many of his earlier scenes boil down to ‘my friend Lude and I took X drugs and slept with X women.’ The payoff and the culmination of his mania really add to the story, but I did sometimes find myself wanting to get back to Will and Karen at the house and what I considered to be the core of the narrative.
While I normally value printed books and e-books in equal measure, I would recommend that any would-be House of Leaves reader grab a hard copy of this one. One of the things that makes the story so unique and disquieting is its bizarre typography. As Zampanó, for example, gradually loses his grip on sanity, his already tangled footnotes spiral out of control. Sometimes sections are written sideways or upside down, changing mid-page. In The Whalestoe Letters, words are layered over one another and crawl across the page as Johnny’s mother sinks deeper into her own imagined hell. In some places, this text mimics the shifting state of the house, both growing and shrinking. Dense pages of crowded letters go along with scenes of claustrophobia, and nearly blank pages that contain only a single sentence match agoraphobic chapters as the house grows.
By the same token, this book might not appeal to everybody. House of Leaves is, to put it simply, a very weird book. Beyond the pseudo-academic writing style, some sections have to be read in a mirror or with the book flipped odd directions or by only taking the first letter of every word in a paragraph. In addition to that, while some questions about the house and characters are answered, others are not and readers are left with some points of ambiguity by end of the story. If you’re a fairly meat-and-potatoes reader like I am who prefers all their questions answered at the end of a book/movie, the remaining mysteries might bother you too.
As I read House of Leaves, Stephen King’s old taxonomy of fear came to mind more than once. To King, there are three ways books can frighten us: The ‘Gross-out,’ the ‘Horror,’ and finally, simply ‘Terror.’ For the gross-out, think filth and gore—the ultraviolence of 80s slashers and the more recent Saw or Hostel franchises. For horror, imagine the unnatural. This might include demonic forces, corpses that shamble when they should sleep, and a host of other monsters that subvert the order of things in disconcerting ways, like The Ring or Hereditary. Lastly, we have terror, according to King, “the last and worst one… when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced with an exact substitute. It’s when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, and you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there’s nothing there.” With this book, I couldn’t help but think that Danielewski achieved that third brand of scariness and wrote something truly unsettling.
House of Leaves is light on gore and monsters, save the one supremely terrifying entity, the “dweller in darkness,” that lives in the empty halls. While it’s difficult to put a book this unusual next to more conventional novels and judge them by the same standards, I would give House of Leaves 4.5/5 stars with the caveat that, while it is innovative writing, not every horror reader will love it. All in all, it’s a story that gets into your head and haunts you in its own way. While I hung onto my sanity, I couldn’t help but feel a chill run down my spine when a library coworker approached me last week, scratching his head and saying that, although he’d worked in the library for years, he’d just found a storage closet inside a storage closet that he’d never been in before. Needless to say, I didn’t go anywhere near it.