House of Leaves

I’d like to introduce you all to my new favorite book. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski is a 700-page beast of a novel, and I loved every freaking page of it. I loved it from cover to cover. (Seriously, the subtle glossy pattern on the cover is gorgeous and perfect symbolically.) I loved it so much I even read the index at the end. And not because I’m crazy or exaggerating, but because even the index held content of interest. Every single word and graphic and footnote and thought in this book struck me as put there by intention, and there is little in art I love more than purposefulness. So I devoured it.

My copy of House of Leaves.

My copy of House of Leaves.

This isn’t, per say, a book review. I don’t know this author personally, nor am I published by Random House (I wish). No one sent me this book; I paid for my own copy – at a whopping 30 bucks, too (full color, huge book: totally worth it). I’m not opening up to submissions for book reviews on my blog, either. I quite simply loved this book so much I had to share its existence with you – just in case you might love it too. That and I’m dying to talk about it.

Okay, so, the basics. As much as it pains me to say, I really don’t think this book is for everyone. I would categorize House of Leaves as experimental, literary horror. If you love those things, it’s worth checking out. If you don’t like being scared – like well and truly disturbed in an under-the-skin psychological way – you probably won’t like it. And if you don’t like making your mind work double – maybe you prefer fun commercial reads, etc. – you definitely won’t like it. Since I like little in this world better than getting both my ticker and my thinker racing, you can see why House of Leaves is so up my alley.

And because I’m willing to bet many of you are already underestimating how truly intellectual of a read this novel is, I’m going to reiterate. I’m certain I could spend a college lit class analyzing House of Leaves the entire semester and still not understand every nuance. And if I ever hear of such a college course offered in my area, I’m auditing it for sure. This Spin blurb sums it up pretty well: “Stunning… What could have been a perfectly entertaining bit of literary horror is instead an assault on the nature of story.”

That’s the root of it, right there. An assault on the nature of the story. House of Leaves is an experimental novel. (Notice “a novel” on the cover; remember the “assertion” reason from this post?) I’m going to try to break down the basics without giving anything away.

There are three main layers of story. At the center is the scary one. Pulitzer Prize-winning filmmaker Will Navidson, his partner Karen, and their two children move into a house with a startling oddity: their new house is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. (That, dear writers, is what you call a high concept premise!) To capture this phenomenon, Navy sets up a bunch of cameras in the house. The story unfolds as a documentary; only what Navy catches on tape and still can be told to the reader.

The second layer of the story is an old man named Zampanò who is studying and retelling this supposedly famous documentary. But not just that; he’s writing a book on it. A whole, huge book called House of Leaves. And he gets obsessed. He tracks down relevant references and allusions and footnotes the central text. He corrals criticism of the film. He offers his own analyses. He basically turns it into his life’s work. His notes are almost pompously scholarly, but wonderfully thoughtful.

The third layer of the story is who I would call our narrator, a marginalized youth named Johnny Truant. Johnny finds Zampanò’s unbound work when the old man dies… and takes up his task. His wry, jaded voice is a wonderful counterbalance to the pretention of Zampanò.

As you can imagine, with three different storylines and multiple narrators, the stories become entwined. Footnotes abound, and often get in the way of each other. Appendices and indexes send you bouncing back and forth like a pinball. Strangeness and madness grow. Uncertainty strengthens. Lines between narrators blur.

It’s fantastic.

And I think at the root of it, that’s the trick to enjoying House of Leaves as a reader: let it take you. Let the fear seep in. Let the footnotes send you back and forth until you’re lost. Let the wild experiments with format really get to you. Let yourself pause often to think about why something is done, and what effect it has on you. Reading this book was a physical experience for me. For example, at one point I was literally holding the book upside down, so turning the next page felt like going backwards. I was reading backwards; why would Danielewski do that? What does it mean?

It’s my new favorite book. Well, expect for my homeboy Poe, if you count his collected works as a book. He can stay. I guess I should say this is my favorite contemporary novel (written in the past 100 years, I think that criteria is, right?). Speaking of Poe, did you know that the female musician known as Poe is Mark Z. Danielewski’s sister? Her song “Haunted” is about this book. The quote in House of Leaves, “No one should brave the underworld alone,” is commonly misattributed to Edgar Allan Poe, but it’s actually lyrics by the artist Poe. Fun fact. 😉

This is so much more than “just” a horror novel. It’s a love story. It’s a war cry against tropes. It’s heartbreaking and terrifying and shatteringly brilliant. It simultaneously makes me thrilled to be a writer and despair that I didn’t think of it – that I might never write anything this good. It’s grit shot through with magical realism and poetry.

With a book of this size and caliber, buying it and deciding to give it a try is definitely a commitment. As I said, it’s not for everyone, but I simply had to share how much I love it. If you’re intrigued, I encourage you to get a hold of your own, and I definitely think it’s worth the extra dough to find the remastered full-color edition.

Have you read House of Leaves? If so, what was your favorite part? (If it contains spoilers, don’t tell me in the comments!) And if not, does it intrigue you or send you running? What book have you read that blew you away like this?

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