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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  • Melissa Frye

    “Bigger on the inside” makes me think of Doctor Who. This probably isn’t a book for me, but your enthusiasm is a sight to behold. I understand. When I read Divergent by Veronica Roth it consumed me. So much so, that when I finished reading it I turned around and started reading it again.

    • I’m not a Doctor Who fan, but I did just read (and enjoy) Divergent. It’s not something I would normally have picked up, but I needed an audio-tape for a road trip and I’m glad I found this one. I read the 2nd book when I got home; very fun, fast and thoughtful reads!

  • Lura Slowinski

    I want to read this so badly! I’m still on the wait list at the library; I might just have to splurge on a copy for myself at this rate. The book sounds exactly like the sort of thing I like.

    • Oh yeah, if you can afford it I would. I definitely think you’ll like it, Lura! And please let me know if I’m right or wrong once you get around to it. =)

  • I’ve been wanting to read this! I’ll probably check it out from the library. . .

  • I’ll probably check it out from the library. I’ve been wanting to read. 🙂

  • Michelle Hendry

    I love this book, but there is so much to absorb, I end up sidetracked in philosophy and have been reading for a while. Owning my own copy is essential!

    • I can totally see how that would happen! I agree, having my own copy was important to me. The book is all about notations and people commenting on other people’s stories, etc., so it seemed right to make some of my own notes, too.

  • Regina Richards

    I’ve never read this book, but I maybe I will. My husband and I used to both be plagued by dreams about moving into a house that was bigger on the inside than on the outside -endless rooms. That was back when we were real estate hobbyists, so we figured the dreams came from looking at so many houses. But now I wonder if this is a common dream with some sort of hidden symbolism we didn’t get.

    • Really? Were your dreams scary? Because in a way, that could also be kind of awesome, if it was just like bonus rooms. Lol. It’s definitely terrifying in the book, though, so you might be risking a recurrence of those dreams if you do decide to give it a read.

      • richardsfive

        Neither of us found the dreams precisely scary. More disturbing and eerie. Nothing bad happened in the dreams. We just kept finding more rooms. Again, probably because back in those days we were endlessly looking for houses to buy and refurb.

  • TrudieMarie

    I hope you send this to Danielewski. It would make him feel real good. Or, I could send it to him mentioning I thought he might enjoy reading such complements. Most people don’t take the trouble to do such a thing. It’s very much appreciated. He may have already read this! I hope so. Then he would have an even better day!

  • jclementwall

    Wow. I’m SO curious. I read literary fiction All. The. Time. I’ve never tried “literary horror,” but I should. Sometimes I just really like being scared. Definitely putting this on my TBR list.

    Great writeup, Annie.

    • Well then it sounds like you just might love it! Let me know what you think. =)

  • Cynthia Robertson

    Yea, I was hooked at the house that’s bigger inside than out. But your whole discription sold me, Annie. A read that gets both the ticker and thinker racing sounds like my kind of read. Got it on my great big long list now.

  • What a great review! Really–I’m sold!

    • Wow! Well thank you. I guess Danielewski should give me royalties or something. 😉

  • Jolina Petersheim

    I admit that I’m not a horror fan, but this book looks so literary, too, that I am very interested! Thanks for the great review, Annie! : )

  • A. B. Davis

    Wow, you hit the nail on the head with this book. I absolutely LOVE this novel as well. A friend recommended it many years ago and it took me months to read for all of my own paranoia and hesitation to exert myself in the mental and physical ways this book demands. I think my absolute favorite part (among many) is when Karen Navidson first realizes the house is bigger on the inside when she is talking to someone (I can’t remember who) and puts a book on the shelf she just built to fit perfectly in between two walls and it falls off the edge. I got serious chills and knew I was hooked. You are an excellent writer/blogger and are very inspiring to read by the way. I must say, I thought it was kismet that your favorite book also happened to be mine. Thanks for doing what you do!

    • Ooooh, yes! I loved that part too! My favorite was Navy’s dream with the well, with the match/book on the platform scene being a close second. Such a great novel!

      And thank you so much for you kind words! You’ve put a smile on my face today. 🙂

      • A. B. Davis

        I’ve been searching your archives for a post explaining why you don’t like doing book reviews, though I know you’re considering changing your stance on it. I’m just curious what inspired that stance against it in the first place but have not found anything specific. I would be intrigued if you’d care to share. Also, rereading this post made me think of how much I also love Johnny Truant and his narration. His horror story with the Zampano’s review and his own past with his mother and how they work together in the novel is brilliant. And the Whalestone letters! Great! Now I have to go reread House of Leaves for the 3rd time. Thanks, Annie.

        • The short version is this: It’s a surprisingly small industry. You never know when the person reading your review will turn out to be the editor of the author — and maybe an editor who will someday consider your book. (Or the author who’s best friends with them and will someday be on your list of people to ask for blurbs, etc.) I don’t want to risk offending someone, but I also feel that it’s inherently dishonest to only say positive things when a book has obvious flaws — or to only review 5-star books. So for now, I’m just not doing them. Totally personal choice!

  • Pranit Singh

    Hi there. I was wanting to read this book from a long time but I had read some of the reviews saying this book is too consuming and I was about to change my views on buying this book as I am only 15; but then I read your review that tried to change my mind again and convincing me more on trying to give it a read. I was basically planning to read it because I love physiological and creepy books with a bit kind of mystery (one of such books I loved was miss peregrines home for peculiar children, and also it’s sequence). So I am still thinking whether I should read it (as I’m only 15 though) ??

  • Pranit Singh

    Hi there. I was wanting to read this book from a long time but I had read some of the reviews saying this book is too consuming and I was about to change my views on buying this book as I am only 15; but then I read your review that tried to change my mind again and convincing me more on trying to give it a read. I was basically planning to read it because I love physiological and creepy books with a bit kind of mystery (one of such books I loved was miss peregrines home for peculiar children, and also it’s sequence). So I am still thinking whether I should read it (as I’m only 15 though) ??

    • Pranit Singh

      I would really appreciate if you would give me any recommendations about whether I should be reading this book or not…….

      • Hi Pranit! I don’t really have any way of knowing whether or not you’d like House of Leaves. If you’re so intrigued by it, why not just give it a try to see if you like it? If you don’t like it you can always put it down and switch to something else! If the cost of buying it is holding you back, maybe a library near you carries it for rental?

        • Pranit Singh

          Ok thank you very much. I will definitely read it during my upcoming vacations.