House of Leaves. Mark Z. Danielewski, author. Published 2000.
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.
— (Untitled Fragment)
House of Leaves p. 563
Yes, I know. This book has been out for literally 22 years and I’m only just now getting to it. Not only that, but I have the audacity to review it after all this time? Like anyone will even read it??
Umm, yep. That’s exactly what’s happening here.
House of Leaves jumped to the top of my list this summer when other members of Twitter’s horror community continued to mention it favorably. Several of us decided to read it for the month of July using the hashtag #JulyLeavesRead. You’ll see our reading updates gathered under that hashtag, including my own.
Why am I taking the time to write a review? Because House of Leaves is an unusual and fascinating book, and I have thoughts, dammit. I can’t process those thoughts in a tweet, but I still want to share them. Hence this review. Let’s get down to it.
The Broad Strokes
First, a brief summary of the book. House of Leaves is the story of three people: Johnny Truant, Zampanò, and Will Navidson. Navidson is an acclaimed photojournalist who moves to Virginia with his family for a fresh start, only to discover that their new house contains a portal to a haunting labyrinthine dimension—often referred to as the House. Navidson documents his study and exploration of the House, ultimately producing his findings in a documentary called The Navidson Record. Zampanò, who has studied Navidson’s work obsessively, writes his own analysis of the House in a lengthy thesis-like document. While we as the reader never experience The Navidson Record directly, we get the impression that most of it is described to us through Zampanò’s analysis. Johnny Truant comes into possession of Zampanò’s work after Zampanò is found dead in his apartment, at which point Truant takes it upon himself to edit and compile Zampanò’s work for publication. The resulting text—House of Leaves—thus includes much commentary and narration from Truant in the form of footnotes, leading the reader through a story that differs from, but parallel’s, that of Zampanò and Navidson.
On the whole, I found House of Leaves to be a thought-provoking attempt to reimagine the notion of a “haunted house” story, and indeed to reimagine the very nature of a book/novel. House of Leaves has the feel of a “found-footage” style ghost story, not unlike The Blair Witch Project in book form. The use of appendices and footnotes allow for a style of storytelling that is layered, multi-perspective, and often quite far from linear. Perhaps the most unique characteristic of this book is the sometimes-bewildering and avant-garde manner in which the author plays with the text itself, utterly reimagining the way this book uses (or doesn’t use) text to take up space on a page. The overall effect of these traits is a novel—although in many ways “novel” feels inaccurate—in which the themes of its contents are embodied by the very text itself. For this reason alone, I think House of Leaves is worth reading for the unique experience that it offers the reader. And while I have my criticisms, the story itself is original and reasonably compelling. So if you’ve been waiting for my permission: go forth and read this book.
As I alluded in the above paragraph, my affection for House of Leaves is not unconditional. While I have much praise for the book, I also have some criticisms I’d like to unpack. The remainder of this review will be spent unpacking these criticisms and adulations in greater detail.
I’ll address my criticisms first because, just like a meal, I like to get the unpleasant morsels out of the way first. This way I can save the best for last, like dessert. I don’t have many negative criticisms—only 2—but these are things that consistently bothered me throughout the text.
1. The whole book should be at least 30% shorter than it is.
Despite all the ways that House of Leaves is entirely unique and original, its uniqueness is not sufficient to carry the reader through its 662 pages (plus a bulky and unwarranted index). There are several passages, and even whole chapters, that could be cut altogether without losing anything from the story.
Many of the sections I’m referring to are simply bone-dry; a whole chapter is devoted to a geological analysis of the walls within the House, which is about as engaging as cardboard is appetizing. Other sections feel irrelevant: Johnny Truant regularly tells tangential stories, and while some of them have bearing to the plot, several seem like a waste of time. Ditto for much of the contents in the appendices.
Finally, there are some sentences that just need to die. Yes, you heard me right: sentences. Because several times in this story, Danielewski has the bad habit of narrating lengthy dreamlike sequences as a single sentence, which sometimes lasts for pages. I found those sentences to be laborious in the extreme, the sort of “literary” drudgery that makes me want to throw books across the room.
Anyway, enough of my soapbox. Suffice it to say that House of Leaves could stand to be slimmed down by an order of magnitude, much to the reader’s benefit.
2. Zampanò experiences no character development whatsoever.
Even though Zampanò is ostensibly the primary narrator of House of Leaves, we really don’t get a sense of Zampanò as a character. The introduction of the book hints that Zampanò is reclusive, eccentric, and enigmatic, leaving the reader with an appetite to learn more about this mysterious character, but that yearning is never fulfilled. Zampanò seldom mentions himself in his writing, and certainly never provides any personal details or stories the way that Truant and Navidson do.
In traditional storytelling theory, a main character is one that undergoes some significant change during the development of the story. In this sense, Zampanò can hardly be considered a main character (even though he is so prominent in the story) because he remains profoundly unchanged throughout. He is already a corpse at the very beginning, and although his narrative voice contributes a great deal to House of Leaves, he is just as lifeless at the end.
With my criticisms out of the way, I want to reiterate that my overall impression of House of Leaves is a positive one. There are many things about the book that I really enjoyed, things that made the reading experience worthwhile in the long run.
1. The “found footage” feeling is refreshing and engaging.
Danielewski’s commitment to maintaining a sense of realism is clear throughout the text. I’m tempted to use the term “magical realism” here, but that phrase doesn’t really do justice to House of Leaves. Danielewski goes so far as to pull in bogus citations from real and invented scholars and authors, which lends the text a strange sort of credibility. The story wants to be perceived as real, and Danielewski makes every effort to merge Navidson’s world with that of the reader.
Just as with The Blair Witch Project or the podcast The Black Tapes, this appeal to “found footage” reality leaves the reader tingling with a sense otherworldly contact, as if the impossible world of the story might actually lie within reach. And for all we know, maybe it does.
2. The reinvention of textual space is its own adventure.
We’ve become so accustomed to our idea of a “book” that we’ve ceased to imagine any other way of using a page to tell a story. The “novel” is a known form to us: chapters composed of paragraphs that tell a story, usually without illustrations or footnotes. House of Leaves takes that mold and shatters it completely. Each chapter seems to contain some degree of “nontraditional” textual elements, which is seldom the same from chapter to chapter. In this way Danielewski uses the text itself to reflect the story, and exploring the author’s reinvention of text is part of the adventure contained in House of Leaves.
It is impossible to summarize these textual nuances accurately, since they vary from chapter to chapter and page to page. I can, however, provide two limited examples. In this first one, Danielewski has used the idea of a labyrinth to redefine the reader’s progression through the chapter: no longer linear, but rather meandering and twisting.
In this second example, the author makes use of white space and textual orientation to convey a character’s sense of literal and metaphorical disorientation.
These are only two examples, and I maintain that they do not hold a candle to the wide variety of textual manipulations you will find in House of Leaves. There is a great wealth of similar creativity found within those pages, but you’ll just have to experience it for yourself.
3. The story itself is original—and haunting.
Even if you could disregard the unusual textual layout of House of Leaves, you’ll never read a haunted house story quite like this one. What sets the story apart from every other “haunted house” tale is its lack of a specter. There is no ghost to speak of, no malevolent sentient entity, no monstrous creature to speak of. In many ways, the “haunting” in House of Leaves is space itself. Sure, the House is cold, dark, and physically can’t exist, but more than that: the House is alive. It is a virtually infinite domain where the laws of physics cease to have meaning, where the relative positions of objects are inconstant, where the mindsets of its occupants can change the state of surrounding matter. When you enter the House, the House will know your inmost being and respond accordingly. If you find the space within the House to be haunting, you are ultimately haunted by a spatial reflection of yourself. The possibilities and implications of such a haunting make House of Leaves irresistibly original.
4. The text leaves room for the reader’s theories to emerge.
In many ways, House of Leaves is a book that refuses to end. The story reaches a sort of conclusion, I suppose, but there are more than a few loose threads left to dangle in the wind, plenty of unanswered questions. If House of Leaves had been a “traditional” book in any respect, those loose threads would be bothersome, the mark of a thoughtless or irresponsible writer. As it is, the esoteric nature of Danielewski’s work encourages the reader to be an active participant in filling those blanks—and the reader isn’t necessarily alone in that goal.
I discovered fan forums for House of Leaves out of necessity when I failed to comprehend a seemingly-encoded letter in the appendix. “Did anyone else get the code for the letter on page xxx?” I wondered, and by Googling I discovered a world of readers with their own theories about the text. Since that discovery I have actually avoided those webspaces (I wanted to steer clear of spoilers), but now that I’ve finished the book, I’m very curious to see how other readers responded to and decoded Danielewski’s cryptic text. What fan theories are out there? What do people think was “really happening” in the story? What is it “about”?
Like the white space Danielewski utilizes in House of Leaves, these unanswered questions are not really “empty” after all. They are spaces reserved for the reader, an invitation to continue the story beyond its ink and binding.
I look forward to diving in.