Years ago, when House of Leaves was first being passed around, it was nothing more than a badly bundled heap of paper, parts of which would occasionally surface on the Internet. No one could have anticipated the small but devoted following this terrifying story would soon command.
Starting with an odd assortment of marginalized youth — musicians, tattoo artists, programmers, strippers, environmentalists, and adrenaline junkies — the book eventually made its way into the hands of older generations, who not only found themselves in those strangely arranged pages but also discovered a way back into the lives of their estranged children.
Now, for the first time, this astonishing novel is made available in book form, complete with the original colored words, vertical footnotes, and newly added second and third appendices.
The story remains unchanged, focusing on a young family that moves into a small home on Ash Tree Lane where they discover something is terribly wrong: their house is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.
Of course, neither Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Will Navidson nor his companion Karen Green was prepared to face the consequences of that impossibility, until the day their two little children wandered off and their voices eerily began to return another story — of creature darkness, of an ever-growing abyss behind a closet door, and of that unholy growl which soon enough would tear through their walls and consume all their dreams.
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Book Review by The Goodfellow
A review from the trenches, 14 years later…
This book came into my possession in 2003. I was stationed in Iraq, hanging out with a battle buddy. He and I were hanging out in the recreation tent at Baghdad International Airport (BIAP, aka Camp Sather) watching DVDs and perusing books. Sam, my battle buddy, hands me a battered copy of this book, and says, “I tried reading this– but I think it’s more your speed.”
We parted ways in November. I was headed home, he went to another location. I was on a layover at an airbase in Al Udeid when I started reading this book.
And by “reading this book”, I meant devouring it, like Bastian did as he holed himself in the attic of his primary school, surrounded by food, covered in a rough blanket, sequestered from the rest of the world, pouring through a mighty tome about a story without an end.
I didn’t put the book down save to sleep and trek out to the latrine to do what needed to be done every few hours or so. I usually burn through a book in a few hours, but this one demanded time and attention, lest I run over vital. I was taken by the unreliable narrator of Johnny Truant, and I was enthralled by the journey Navidson endured in reclaiming his life from the horrifying macguffin that was the house his family lived in (and people died horribly in).
Navy and Johnny were two sides of the same coin, bound together by the mysterious scratches of a dead, Milton-esque man. Their stories were so disparate and yet so interconnected. The fabric between them was everywhere from rough and roughly hewn to diaphanous and metaphysical. The footnotes of footnotes were layers upon layers — toying with the reality in which the contents of the book existed. Rules were set up and broken, and yet, everything was cohesive as long as the reader had the endurance to follow along.
I’ve seen a LOT of the One-Star reviews complain that they weren’t snagged within the first 100 pages. Pity– Not everything is a slamming action-fast-paced piece of NASCAR fiction that grabs one by the genitals and rips them off in the first two pages. If you aren’t in for the slow burn, then the first five words of the book ring true:
This is not for you.
House of Leaves became a seminal event in my life when I finished reading it. The darkness in my life, punctuated with walking away from a war with my life and body in tact, became that much clearer from the light– and I somehow began finding awe and inspiration with greater ease. Some have said that it’s a story about people coming to grips with loneliness and/or depression. Some have said it’s a love story.
No one is wrong in their discovery. The only wrong that may be done is to criticize a book unread.
To that end, I’ve ended up buying different copies of this book, like a madman collecting any copy of JD Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” they could get their hands on, or a person who absolutely could not would not leave the house without a pair of gloves to shield their hands from the world. Whenever I mentioned the book to a friend, they usually ended up being the recipient of the copy I bought.
The original copy I received, the one Sam gave me, is in a fireproof safe. Well-worn with a hand-written note scribbled on the front page, I refuse to part with it. But at this point, I’m considering buying a new copy so that I can read it again.
Had The Blair Witch Project been a book instead of a film, and had it been written by, say, Nabokov at his most playful, revised by Stephen King at his most cerebral, and typeset by the futurist editors of Blast at their most avant-garde, the result might have been something like House of Leaves. Mark Z. Danielewski’s first novel has a lot going on: notably the discovery of a pseudoacademic monograph called The Navidson Record, written by a blind man named Zampanò, about a nonexistent documentary film–which itself is about a photojournalist who finds a house that has supernatural, surreal qualities.
(The inner dimensions, for example, are measurably larger than the outer ones.) In addition to this Russian-doll layering of narrators, Danielewski packs in poems, scientific lists, collages, Polaroids, appendices of fake correspondence and “various quotes,” single lines of prose placed any which way on the page, crossed-out passages, and so on.
Now that we’ve reached the post-postmodern era, presumably there’s nobody left who needs liberating from the strictures of conventional fiction. So apart from its narrative high jinks, what does House of Leaves have to offer? According to Johnny Truant, the tattoo-shop apprentice who discovers Zampanò’s work, once you read The Navidson Record,
For some reason, you will no longer be the person you believed you once were. You’ll detect slow and subtle shifts going on all around you, more importantly shifts in you. Worse, you’ll realize it’s always been shifting, like a shimmer of sorts, a vast shimmer, only dark like a room. But you won’t understand why or how.
We’ll have to take his word for it, however. As it’s presented here, the description of the spooky film isn’t continuous enough to have much scare power. Instead, we’re pulled back into Johnny Truant’s world through his footnotes, which he uses to discharge everything in his head, including the discovery of the manuscript, his encounters with people who knew Zampanò, and his own battles with drugs, sex, ennui, and a vague evil force.
If The Navidson Record is a mad professor lecturing on the supernatural with rational-seeming conviction, Truant’s footnotes are the manic student in the back of the auditorium, wigged out and furiously scribbling whoa-dude notes about life.
Despite his flaws, Truant is an appealingly earnest amateur editor–finding translators, tracking down sources, pointing out incongruities. Danielewski takes an academic’s–or ex-academic’s–glee in footnotes (the similarity to David Foster Wallace is almost too obvious to mention), as well as other bogus ivory-tower trappings such as interviews with celebrity scholars like Camille Paglia and Harold Bloom.
And he stuffs highbrow and pop-culture references (and parodies) into the novel with the enthusiasm of an anarchist filling a pipe bomb with bits of junk metal. House of Leaves may not be the prettiest or most coherent collection, but if you’re trying to blow stuff up, who cares? –John Ponyicsanyi