I was first introduced to the works of Danielewski by a very enthusiastic clerk at a bookstore in Houston, Texas. He took it upon himself to be my guide to all horror books, great and small and, when he presented me with House of Leaves it was with an air of expectation and awe, for, he said, he had never before encountered anyone willing to read such an unusual novel.
“Unusual” perhaps doesn’t quite explain House of Leaves, Danielewski’s debut novel. A form of ergodic literature, this novel requires an inordinate amount of work from the reader in order for it to be anything other than a confusing collection of disconnected writings. The book contains several parallel stories and is written in the style of a research project with journal and newspaper articles, letters, footnotes and appendices, all held together by an increasingly bizarre narrative.
The novel begins with the first-person narrative of Jonny Truant, a tattoo studio employee. In his new apartment, he finds a document written by Zampanò, the previous (deceased) tenant, which appears to an obsessional academic critique of a documentary film, The Navdison Record. The remainder of the novel contains Zampanò’s account; Jonny’s autobiographical comments; part of the film transcript; interviews with people associated with The Navidson Record; numerous footnotes; and an appendix of letters written by Jonny’s mother.
The essential story of the titular house is that, Inception-style, it seems to be a house within a house. Its owner, Will Navidson, discovers that the house is changing as doors begin appearing unexpectedly in blank walls, leading to cupboards or corridors. He also discovers that the interior dimensions of the house are greater than the exterior, and the house continues to grow internally over time.
When a hallway termed the “five minute hallway” appears in an exterior wall, Navidson, his brother and friends seek to explore the space that it has produced. They discover spiral staircases, corridors and cavernous rooms, all silent except for an intermittent growl, the source of which is never explained. This exploration of the house leads to the group becoming increasingly insane, and several deaths – even murder – occur.
The house negatively impacts all characters: Zampanò, Jonny, Navidson and Jonny’s mother all display signs of increasing mental instability.
Regardless, the inconstant house hovers, brooding, throughout the book, its presence simultaneously innocuous and threatening, ambiguous and definite. The unease felt by all characters – and readers – of House of Leaves is emphasised by the word house (or Haus or maison) being presented in a different colour throughout the text. In addition, the use of many real-world references in the novel’s footnotes create a link between the accounts and the outside world, leaving the reader with an unhappy sense of being connected with the events described in the book.
House of Leaves is, without a doubt, the strangest book I have ever read, and most certainly not for the faint-hearted. It sits uncomfortably within the horror genre, as it can also be described as a love story or a satire of academic critique. Despite its often frustrating style and complete lack of explanation as to the essence and consequence of the house, once you have read House of Leaves all other novels will be utterly unsatisfying in comparison.
About the reviewer
Laura MacKenzie is a Scot who lives in Leicester. When she is not studying for a PhD in Politics, she enjoys reading scary stories and listening to progressive rock. A lifelong Hibernian fan, Laura often finds that listening to Yes helps her accept the news of yet another uninspiring football match result.