If any book of the new century could lay claim to cult status it is Mark Z. Danielewski’s post-modern novel House of Leaves.
While it’s often described as “horror,” House of Leaves is more like a haunted house story reimagined by M.C. Escher and Jorge Luis Borges, where the only ghosts are the psychological wounds its inhabitants bring with them. With this year marking the book’s 13th anniversary, it’s a fitting time to recognize House of Leaves as the modern classic that it is.
Anticipating the “found footage” trope so popular in Hollywood, the novel revolves around Will Navidson, a photojournalist who sets out to document his family’s fresh start in a new house—only to discover that the interior walls of the house continuously rearrange themselves, eventually revealing the entrance into a completely lightless, perhaps infinite, constantly shifting labyrinth.
The book’s form mirrors the dizzying effects of the house. At times, the reader has to rotate the book or stand in front of a mirror in order to understand the text. There are multiple tiers to the narrative, the base being the Navidson film chronicling the family’s move and subsequent expeditions into the labyrinth. The other major thread is the parallel narrative of Johnny Truant, an apprentice at a Hollywood tattoo parlor, who is assembling a mysterious dead man’s manuscript, a definitive account of the Navidson documentary. Truant’s own mental state (as evidenced by his footnote interjections) begins to deteriorate as he is drawn further into the manuscript.
House of Leaves is a challenging, at times frustrating, read. It is an enigmatic experience that is constantly undermining itself. There are footnotes to footnotes in addition to large blocks of text throughout that one isn’t even intended to read but rather take in from a distance. Right from the start, Truant declares the film that the whole book within the book is based on, as well as the copiously cited critical analyses and interviews concerning it, never existed. This would seem to deflate the book’s entire effect, and yet, as the narrative progresses, Truant’s statement grows from puzzling, to confounding, to perhaps the most intriguing of the book’s open-ended riddles. Who was the old man? Was he insane? Is the manuscript’s insidious power merely a manifestation of latent mental illness Truant inherited from his institutionalized mother?
What’s amazing, and this speaks to Danielewski’s skill as a writer, is that between the interruptions and post-modern game playing, the recounted events of the supposedly non-existent film still manage to maintain their suspense and disquieting effects. Perhaps they are even enhanced by the narrative breaks, which provoke anxiety within the reader that mirrors Navidson’s own longing to return to the abyss.
Even more surprising, however, is that after all of the deciphering of fragmented text and hunting through the appendix for referenced (but not included) exhibits, what emerges is a genuinely affecting portrait of a marriage, of the near-miracle of maintaining a long-term relationship. That is ultimately what gives all of the novel’s haunting elements their power.
Just as the house and the documentation of its phenomena take hold of the characters within the book, House of Leaves will burrow into your mind and live there until, unable to resist any longer, you will return for a second read, to parse its many layers in search of answers in the darkness.