House of Leaves is a novel released in 2000 by Mark Z. Danielewski about a house and the effects that this house has had on anybody who steps foot in it or reads about it. That’s probably about as simple as a synopsis could go on a plot this big; there is an unbelievable amount of story, information, and other content that (breathtakingly) all expand and drive the plot forward. I was recommended this book by a friend who absolutely loves it, and I challenged myself to read it before I saw her next so that we could talk about it. I spent the next three days with my head buried between pages during every available break that I could possibly get. That being said, whether or not I was as motivated as I was to finish it on such a compressed timetable, I still wouldn’t have been able to take my eyes off the page. This novel was one of the absolute greatest literary experiences I’ve had in my life. Being a movie guy, it often takes a lot for a book to impress me but this erudite marvel blew me away, it was not only entertaining but extremely interesting and often times, awe-inspiring as well.
As mentioned, the basic story is about a strange house, some might even call “haunted,” but I would rather call “possessed.” Will Navidson, his wife Karen and their two kids lived in this house and filmed their experience with the mysterious hallway that manifested itself out of nowhere in a door that shouldn’t exist. This hallway began as simply a pitch-black corridor, inexplicably located between two rooms in the house, but quickly became much more terrifying and unimaginable. Inside the door, a hallway that leads to countless rooms, chambers, more hallways, etc. can change its structure without any warning, and nobody knew why it was there. So, they filmed their time in the house in a way that likely inspired Paranormal Activity, and many crazy things happen during this filming that are explained throughout the novel intermittently. What gets strange about the way this book is written is that although it’s about this documentary that Navidson made (titled The Navidson Record) the novel itself tells dozens and dozens of stories about, explaining, and aside from The Navidson Record.
The main character in the novel is a man named Johnny Truant, who very informally writes directly to the audience about his time reading Zampanó’s writings. Who is Zampanó? He is an old man who was writing a book compiling every resource that he could find on The Navidson Record in order to tell a large-scale version of the story and get as many sources, references, and research materials about it. As the reader, we read Johnny’s informal analysis, anecdotal additions, and basic thoughts on Zampanó’s work as well as The Navidson Record in general; his writings read like a blog or journal, something intimate that we don’t feel right in reading. On top of that, we get Zampanó’s thoughts and collection of all of his materials, which read like a textbook because of their formal and academic aesthetic. In Zampanó’s writing, we are told about The Navidson Record from an outsider’s perspective, which keeps us from getting too close to the story… sometimes. Since Zampanó was taking a more analytical and investigative approach, the reader is often times removed from the personal nature of storytelling (here, the driving force is reason instead of emotion), and we are told instead of shown what happened with Navidson’s house. While this would ordinarily be frowned-upon in narrative storytelling, the effect that the judicious style has on the novel is that it makes everything feel so real.
I previously stated that Johnny unpretentiously writes about Zampanó who writes about Navidson using research articles, quotes, books, magazines, etc. and his own opinion. Because of that, you’re often times reading many stories on every page and this can be quite daunting in some instances. The book uses footnotes religiously which is a strange thing to get used to but turns out to be an undeniably genius way to organize all that Danielewski has to say in this story. The craziest part about all of those things is that they are all fiction- every source that Danielewski brings into the book are all fabricated by his own innovative intellect, and there are hundreds of these fake sources in House of Leaves. The most impressive effect that all of that had on me was that it really felt like I wasn’t reading a book, but peeking into peoples’ lives and seeing (or reading) things that I should have no part in. The scary parts seem scarier, the dramatic parts were more emotional, and the story just seemed to jump right off of the pages. The book is 750 pages long, but the story “ends” at 550, and the next 200 pages are various appendices, glossaries, indexes, and exhibits… this novel is so much more than just your average book (and I HATE to use this cliché BS) …it’s an “experience.” It really is. There is still so much in the last 200 pages, enough to write dozens of books on that material alone (and written other books on it he has).
What I loved most about this novel is that it has no “normal” “structure.” Even the story that we get with Navidson (which has a clear beginning, middle, and end as any other story would) is spliced into Zampanó’s research and Johnny’s annotations, and then (and I forgot to mention this), the Editor commenting on Johnny’s comments. Honestly, it was a lot to get used to, but it was easily the most rewarding work I’ve done in awhile. Since this novel doesn’t have a normal structure, it completely messes with the reader and flips the literary narrative paradigm on its head; it adheres to nothing at all aside from its own momentum derived from the originality of plot. What I mean by that is: this novel has no rules to follow that it doesn’t create for itself, and the sheer uniqueness of what it has to offer keeps it going until the very end. If the story isn’t enough to keep you interested, then the way it goes about telling the story should at least impress you enough to keep reading. Some parts of the novel are a little bit slower because it delves deep into mythology, history, and psychology but what it has to say is often so fascinating that I found myself curious about things that I thought previously would never grab my attention.
I could go on all day, gushing, swooning and applauding the techniques and story that Danielewski incorporates and employs in this novel but I want to preserve your experience with as many surprises and twists as possible. There really is no novel like this one; I don’t think any author I’ve ever heard of would even have the energy (let alone the interest) to write such an in-depth book. It physically exhausts me even to think about how much Mark Z. Danielewski did to make this novel a reality and reading it was such a surreal experience that I’m not even hesitant to consider reading it again soon. So, I thank my dear friend who recommended the book to me and I hope that this finds it’s way into many more ignorant hands like mine who don’t know what they’re missing. I’m going to give House of Leaves a glowing 10/10 and a gold recommendation. I can’t stress it enough: read this book. It won’t be for everybody, but everybody should at least give it a shot. Whew. What am I going to do with my life now that I’m done with this?! Have you read this book? If so, what did you think about it? Let me know! As always, thanks for reading and I’ll see you soon!
TL;DR: You never know what this novel has up its sleeve, and just when you think you have an idea about where this vehicle taking you, Danielewski floors it and then slams on the brakes so that you go flying through the windshield into somewhere else entirely; there are no seatbelts to save you. Good luck.