I came across the mention of House of Leaves in several of the horror fiction discussions on Reddit. Ever the one in search of a good spook, I had put the book on my list forever, but I was also a little hesitant. The people who talked about it hinted at how dense and complex it was. I just wanted a fun read, not a challenge. But curiosity got the better of me and I ordered the book online (1).
The novel begins as normally as normal can in this case. Johnny Truant, an unstable young man who works at a tattoo parlor, finds a manuscript with the help of his friend Lude. The old man working on the manuscript, Zampanò, is now dead, but has left all his research for a book he calls House of Leaves. Johnny becomes obsessed with this research manuscript and its story, which is based on a short film called The Navidson Record (a film Johnny never manages to find). As Johnny starts working on the manuscript, we get a look into the short film and the lives of the people in it. Will Navidson is a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer who has now decided to retire to a remote house in the countryside with his partner Karen and their two children. The move is intended on bringing the couple closer, who Karen feels is drifting apart because of Will’s demanding occupation.
The house works well to do this in the first few weeks that the Navidsons move there. But when they return from a vacation, a mysterious doorway appears in one of the hallways. Will begins to look into this and finds out that somehow the internal measurements of the house are just a little bit larger than the external measurements. Soon, another door appears that should technically lead into the backyard, but instead opens to a black, icy abyss, and over time, the house steadily grows on the inside. All of these discoveries are recorded either by Will’s handheld camera or the Hi-8s set up by Will around the house.
And while this part of the narrative works (and is beautifully written), it gets broken up by minimal footnotes by Zampanò and extensive footnotes by Johnny. Johnny’s footnotes sometimes extend into their own narratives, which is distracting, but an integral part of what Danielewski is trying to stylistically achieve. The faux-research style story is written with so much (fake) research that can be frustrating, but is also equally awe-inducing.
Danielewski’s typographical style reminded me quite a bit of e.e. cummings’s emphasis on playing with visual patterns within a text. Danielewski is very successful, and for me, this stylistic attempt was not just a show, but rather effective in creating an atmosphere.
While it is easy to categorize a book like this in the horror genre, but that would be unfair. House of Leaves is more than that, and it doesn’t scare so much as it unsettles you. Read the book, and then dare to walk into a closet without feeling a slight chill down your spine.