Review: House of Leaves

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.

Criticisms

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.

Positive Remarks

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.

Review: What One Wouldn’t Do

What One Wouldn’t Do. Scott J. Moses, editor. Published 2021.

I purchased What One Wouldn’t Do with a few gleeful taps of my finger on an afternoon in late September. The anthology’s editor, Scott J. Moses, had just tweeted that the book was available ahead of schedule, and wouldn’t we like to buy it sooner rather than later? I clicked on the Amazon link without hesitation. The cover art alone provided an enticing reason to purchase the anthology of short fiction and poetry, but I had also been following Moses’ updates on twitter for a number of months. I knew that the horror anthology could only bring me terrifying delight—and I was not mistaken.

Labeled as an anthology of “grief horror,” What One Wouldn’t Do is a beautifully designed volume built from the eloquent nightmares of twenty-nine contributors. Six of the twenty-nine entries are poems, while the rest are short fiction. The nightmares last for an impressive 319 pages before ending with a note from the editor, and in those 319 pages the reader becomes darkly, intimately acquainted with the many horrors that relate, in some way, to grief.

There are stories about cold cases that never die, about the remorse that drives us to the dark corners of the woods. We are shown the power of raising the dead and the cost of hunting the living. We see that ghosts are sometimes as sad as the houses they haunt, that artistic genius can be measured in blood, that some of our wishes are best left unspoken. In all of these tales we chase the specters of Grief and Loss. What would you do in a state of grief? What wouldn’t you do?

The Book as Object

One of the things that immediately struck me about What One Wouldn’t Do is how beautiful the book is as an object. Thanks to Twitter, I had known for some time that the cover art was exquisite: a gloomy house ablaze in the woods, with an unnamed specter hovering uncannily overhead. While the chilling artwork doesn’t seem to be based on any particular scene from the anthology, I think the specter on the cover represents the theme of Grief that pervades this anthology. Like the shrouded figure, our grief is not always easy to define. It is amorphous, dark, and nondescript, and yet our grief haunts us all the same. We cannot always see its face, but in our worst moments, we know Grief is near at hand, hovering just out of sight.

When I finally held the book in my hands, I could see that the beauty of this anthology is more than just its cover. True, the exterior design is exquisite from all angles, but it is also a pleasant object to hold in your hands. The trim size of the book (5 in. x 8 in.) feels perfectly weighted and balanced by its 319 pages. The matte texture of the cover feels soft and comfortable, and the interior pages have the quality feel and look of a professional publication.

The Stories Themselves

I absolutely loved my experience reading the stories in this anthology. Not every story resonated with me, but an impressive number of them did, and quite regularly. And throughout my reading experience, I observed that the quality of writing and editing were both consistently high.

One of the little details I enjoyed most about this anthology was the inclusion of a personal statement by the author at the end of each entry. I’m not talking about the traditional 100-word author bios, although those were present as well. These post-story blurbs were different: they offered a paragraph’s worth of insight from the author about why they wrote their story, and why it mattered to them. Even for the stories that didn’t resonate with me, these author-blurbs were pure gold every time.

Alright, enough beating around the bush, let’s talk favorites. Of the twenty-nine works that comprise this anthology, I have challenged myself to list only my favorite four stories and one poem. I want to reiterate that many of the entries in this anthology resonated with me. But these are my favorites, for what they’re worth.

Favorite Poem

“Traditional Women” by Donna Lynch
Truth be told, I’m not much of a poet, but this one really jived with me. The vibe is witchy and dark and filled with spirit. The author’s note explains that the poem responds to the way women have historically been demonized in fiction—and embraces that demonization as literal. I don’t have much else to add except that I really, really liked “Traditional Women,” so I guess you’ll just have to go read it for yourself. You can thank me later.

Favorite Stories

1. “Holding” by Simone le Roux
This dark short wrestles with the idea of belonging, of Home with a capital “H”: not just the place where you lay your head, but the place where you feel safe, secure, empowered, vulnerable. If you had moved around for your entire life, what would you do to purchase that sort of permanence? What lengths would you go to, and what lines would you be willing to cross?
As someone who has never owned the roof over his head—but desperately wants to—this story hit me hard in ways I wasn’t expecting. If you’re a chronic renter like me, I think you will find this story haunting and heart-wrenching, and well worth your time.

2. “All the Misery that Waits for Us at the End of the Day” by Eric LaRocca
This beautifully-written story deals with two lovers who are trying to exist in a world that defines them as monsters. Only they actually are monsters—werewolves, in fact. Through careful planning, they protect the world from their insatiable metamorphosis every single night—until their careful planning betrays them.
This story singlehandedly convinced me to buy Eric LaRocca’s novella Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke. I never pictured myself as the target audience for queer horror, but I’ll be damned. Wonders never cease.

3. “Monsters Calling Home” by Cheri Kamei
This story is a terrific blend of cosmic/Lovecraftian horror and Pacific Island mythology. When the Old Gods rise as Beasts from the sea, they demand sacrifice from those who live in their ocean, and that sacrifice must be paid in full. For those who survive such a sacrifice, their story becomes legend. But not everyone survives. The Beasts are cruel, and so, so hungry …

4. “Silver Dollar Eyes” by Eric Raglin
You think you know what a haunted house is, but unless you’ve read this story, your understanding is incomplete. Eric Raglin takes the well-worn concept of a haunted house and flips it on its head, transforming the trope into a brand new experience. Part spiritual-drama and part anti-capitalist criticism, “Silver Dollar Eyes” asks us to question who the ghosts are that haunt our homes, and which is more tormented: the dead, or the living?

And Others …

While I have done my best to list my favorites, the truth is that there were many works in this anthology that spoke to me, whispering darkly from the shadows. That’s what I’ve enjoyed so much about this collection: the stories linger long after I’ve set the book down, settling into my mind like the petrichor after a good rain.

I’m running out of ways to say this. What One Wouldn’t Do is definitely worth your time. It is a well-written and well-crafted collection of some excellent horror stories and poetry, and if you’re into that sort of thing, you will not be disappointed in this purchase.