I have a friend who is on a strike rate of 100% for recommended TV shows and books. I’ve loved every single one of them. This record remains intact thanks to a book she recommended to me recently; House Of Leaves.
When I was a child, our family lived in an old house in a small country town. It had its fair share of dark spots and walls that creaked. Absence of light and bumps in the night are what usually terrify a child, because children tend to fill the void with unspeakable creatures. However, for me it wasn’t the thought of what could be making noise, or what could be hiding in the dark, it was just a particular room that scared me; the hallway.
For reasons unexplained, regardless of it being day or night, whether the house was crowded or I was alone, up until the age of 12 I felt that our hallway was haunted. Not in the traditional sense, like there was some malevolent creature from days or dimensions past that was trapped there, but it was the hallway itself. I’d step one foot in there, and the walls would close in on me, almost shrieking at me to get out.
House of Leaves is a novel that really speaks to those earlier fears; not of the cliché boogeymen under the bed, or ghosts in the attic, but the house itself. It is a psychological novel by Mark Z. Danielewski that is based around three layered, separately developed, yet intertwined narratives.
The heart of this novel centres on a fictitious self-shot documentary from Will Navidson; The Navidson Record. After setting up cameras in the new country house and getting away with the family, he is confronted by an unusual discovery upon his return; a mysterious white door appears in the master bedroom. This opens to a bleak walk-in wardrobe. No sockets, no shelves, no features at all. A door at the other end opens to the children’s bedroom. At this point, they can only attribute it to break-in carpenters.
Then, a true spatial deformity is realised. The length of the house on the inside is ¾ of an inch longer than the outside of the house. This is enough to send any engineer into a babbling madness. Following this, countless attempts are made to rectify the difference with the latest technology.
Before long, a new dark and door-less hallway appears in the living room. This pitch black hallway, with walls made of an unknown material, branches off into more halls which themselves branch off into more halls, creating an endless labyrinth.
So how can this exist inside a single house? Where did this maze come from? And perhaps more importantly, where does it lead? Will, teamed up with his brother and good friend, and loads of exploration and documentation equipment, aims to answer these questions.
This exploration becomes much more difficult when it is revealed that these endless halls are forever changing; doors appear, rooms shrink and grow to infeasible sizes, and places shift and move at random.
But this novel isn’t called ‘The Navidson Record’, is it? That’s because this novel, House of Leaves, is structured as a non-fictional analysis of that film by an unstable old man, only known as Zampanò. His life turned hermitic as he was consumed by this record. He wanted to understand the film, and the circumstances behind it, bringing it to public attention.
Much of the novel contains footnotes to support Zampanò’s theories and arguments, half of which are fictitious themselves. The main purpose of these ‘essays’ is to break up the action of The Navidson Record. If you’re a pure fiction reader and don’t care to stop and consider the moral implications of the character’s decisions, the symbolisms present, or what works of fiction this is analogous to, then you may be put off by these sections. I, however, found them fascinating, because they serve as an insight into Zampanò’s mind, and they make the accounts of Will Navidson feel like they actually happened.
Let’s step out to one more layer. It is revealed in the introduction that Zampanò passed away before he could finish his work. So who discovered it, wrote this introduction, and had it published?
Johnny Truant, who is another ‘real’ character, yet deeply flawed. He found Zampanò, along with his work, sprawled out on the floor of his apartment. As Johnny reads Zampanò’s notes, he himself descends into insanity. His thoughts are transcribed into House of Leaves as more footnotes, but marked by a different font.
Through these footnotes, we are presented with yet another narrative which tells of his life of drugs, an infatuation with a stripper called Thumper, and his attempts to understand Zampanò.
It is as if there is someone sitting right beside you, cutting in every now and then, as you’re reading the novel. Johnny’s erratic footnotes mirror his psyche at the time, which as the pages turn, suggest that the original author of House of Leaves fell victim to a similar fate.
Personally, I found these sprawling sections to be a bit too much; whilst the vastly layered approach of the novel is unique and enjoyable, Johnny isn’t someone who can be easily sympathised with. Those walls of words without a break will often be the point to close the book for the night, hoping to have the energy in the next sitting to plough through it.
The beautiful thing about the presentation of House of Leaves, is how the text formatting for a particular page reflects the action in that page. When the action is fast, the pages turn quicker with fewer words. Text will change orientation, mimicking the characters’ movements. When there is a sense of confusion or displacement, text flows backwards, upside down, and even worms its way through multiple pages. Although some of this text is difficult to follow, it is mostly ramblings and not critical to the plot.
Critics have dismissed this approach as a gimmick, or a novelty, but it works. It gives an edge to the already wild ride.
The many appendices add yet another dimension to the tale; with ‘evidence’, photographs of Zampanò’s scrawled notes, and artefacts. You’d be forgiven for thinking he was a real person.
The highlight for me may not have even been in the main story at all, but rather the appendix titled ‘The Three Attic Whalestoe Institute Letters’. This is a chronological series of letters, sent to Johnny during his child/teen years, from his institutionalised mother. She is a misguided individual who truly loves her son, and tries to connect with him while he is having difficulties as (essentially) an orphan, while also experiencing her own horrors in the mental asylum.
These letters display her descent into madness, accentuated by her hauntingly beautiful prose and love for poetry. It has the kind of unsettling ending that will linger in your mind long after you’ve placed the book back in the shelf.
To conclude, this Moby Dick of horror is not something to be overlooked by readers of any genre. It is a truly unique experience that will leave you wanting more.
It goes to show that some of the scariest things in life aren’t things that go bump in the night, or lurk around the corner. Anything simple that flies in the face of reason and logic, such as a spatial anomaly, breaks down our understanding of the world that we’ve been building up since birth.