Written by Alex Taylor
There are some books that are better read standing up—others that are best digested lying in bed. There are few books, however, that are best enjoyed in front of a mirror at 3 o’clock in the morning. For anyone who has read Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, this image might seem familiar—it may even reflect their own experience reading it for the first time. Or it may not. Despite the fact that the text never changes, no two read-throughs of House of Leaves are ever the same. House of Leaves is one of the few books I have read where going through it for the first time isn’t so much a process of reading as it is a process of experiencing the text—an important distinction that has made House of Leaves a classic worth encountering again and again.
In my last article, which you can read here, I mentioned looking up and down the bookstore for a copy of House of Leaves. Though it is traditionally sold as horror and is known as a horror classic, House of Leaves isn’t a book that can easily be pinned into one genre. Like it does in its form, style, and content, House of Leaves rejects categorization. The Wikipedia article for House of Leaves claims that it belongs to the horror, romance, satire, and postmodern genres—all of which are applicable to the novel, despite their seeming incompatibility. But House of Leaves embraces contradictions. Between its covers, a blind man writes literary criticism about a film that doesn’t exist, fake articles are attributed to real scholars, and the ordering of the pages is a suggestion at best. It is a book about defiance—about defying the past, defying the boundaries of the page, and even defying what it means to be a novel.
House of Leaves is as much a novel as Bernard Rose’s Candyman is a movie about writing your thesis—kind of, but not really. At its most basic level, House of Leaves is the story of Johnny Truant, who has picked up the life’s work of his friend’s recently-deceased neighbor, a strange, blind man who goes by the name Zampanò. Zampanò’s work, The Navidson Record—a collection of writing scraps, literary criticism, and fragmented notes about a fictional documentary by the same name—makes up a large portion of House of Leaves. At its most basic level, The Navidson Record is about a family that discovers their house is much larger on the inside than the outside would suggest. Zampanò’s work is filled with missing notes, blacked-out pages, and fictitious references. Johnny’s own story weaves in and around Zampanò’s disordered essay. But it doesn’t stop there. The Introduction, Appendices, and even the Index of the book contribute to the fragmented and disorganized story. It is anything but a unified novel.
And the form of the novel itself is done away with in varying degrees throughout House of Leaves. As if preparing you right from the start for its strangeness, the front cover is smaller than the rest of the book—a clever design that mimics the shape of the Navidson house. The text similarly breaks the rules. Sometimes it overlaps itself, sometimes it is scrawled in the margins (upside-down or otherwise), and sometimes there is only one word per page. A few footnotes have footnotes attached in a cyclical manner that leads right back to the first—others are simply left blank, encouraging the reader to fill them with whatever they can imagine. Another footnote, such as a list of names and references, might last for seven pages. You might have to read a page left-to-right before turning it precisely 180 degrees just to read the upside-down footnote at the top—and then, following the footnote’s footnote, you might end up on a page you read thirty minutes before. And sometimes, if you want to understand what’s written, you’ll need a mirror.
House of Leaves is nothing short of an experience.
Part of what makes House of Leaves so fun to experience is its interactivity. There is so much packed into it that a lifetime of re-reads wouldn’t be enough to unlock its secrets. There are hidden codes throughout for the reader to solve—I still have pages of decoded text scribbled down on papers that stick out from between the pages of the book. House of Leaves encourages the reader to play along with the disorganized text, adding their own footnotes and pages onto its pile of academic notes, letters, poems, pictures, and riddles. When the words are backwards and need a mirror to be read, it is more than just a strange experience—it draws the reader into the story, making their reflection a part of the overall text.
House of Leaves is a wonderful, inspirational horror story for anyone who loves the genre. Stephen King, the master of horror himself, referred to the book as “the Moby-Dick of horror” in an article you can read here. Whether you’re looking for a riddle to solve, an academic text on the nature of filmography, or a love story on a dark background of fragmented text, House of Leaves is an unforgettable experience that every horror fan can look forward to.
Due to its experimental nature, though, House of Leaves does require a measure of patience—especially if you, like me, can’t bear to leave a single word unread. Some of the codes are impossible to decipher without help (thankfully, there are internet forums dedicated just for that), and reading through a seven-page list of names is a senseless and arduous task. Be ready to be both infuriated and amazed—at times, an incomplete piece of the text or a nonsensical passage written in stream of consciousness will make you want to tear your hair out. At others, the breathtaking images of the Labyrinth in Navidson’s house or the gritty, brutal details of Johnny’s life will capture and haunt you. Throw away your expectations, your preconceptions of what a novel is, and pick up House of Leaves. Turn the lights off and grab your flashlight as you step into the dark hallway of its pages—and make sure to keep a mirror close at hand.
Photo found on slashfilm.com