House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski is a ghost story without ghosts.
House of Leaves rolls its narrative out along two intersecting tracks and several levels of abstraction. You, the reader, hold the book in your hand and begin the tale told by Johnny Truant, an apprentice tattoo artist whose aimless carousing through the L.A. nightlife is interrupted when he stumbles across a manuscript left behind in his apartment by the previous tenant, a blind man named Zampano. Truant becomes obsessed with the bits and pieces that Zampano left behind and he starts editing them together, ostensibly into the book you’re now reading.
After some prefatory rambling from Truant, you begin Zampano’s work, the titular House of Leaves. But Truant has more to say, and his obsession with the manuscript and the strange and horrifying turns his life has taken since he began compiling Zampano’s notes frequently interrupt the (supposedly) central narrative and Truant’s story plays out through footnotes and editorial asides throughout the rest of the book, as well as in a few of the attached appendices.
Zampano’s manuscript is called House of Leaves, and it is about a documentary/art film called The Navidson Record. He talks about it as though it were an actual film, and at several points in his in-depth description of the film’s narrative, he goes off on scholarly tangents and cites a number of other commentators on the film, some real and some imagined. Johnny Truant makes it clear that the film does not exist and seems to be wholly the creation of the old man, despite the matter of fact way he references it and the number of (apparently false) footnotes giving scholarly commentary.
The Navidson Record is the foundation on Danielweski (speaking through Truant, speaking through Zampano) builds House of Leaves. The manuscript describes the story of photographer Will Navidson and his wife Karen as they move into a new house with their children. Some gaps have been opening up in the foundation of their marriage and they hope that a new home will help them reconnect. At first it seems to work, but then Will discovers that the house is bigger on the inside than it on the outside. That discovery, strange though it is, is soon confirmed by outside sources. Things get stranger as a door appeared where there wasn’t one before and a hallway opens up where there is no room for one to be. Will is intrigued (and maybe a little obsessed) while Karen is disturbed and eager to leave. The space between them gets bigger as he insists on exploring the expanding space that has opened up in their living room.
He opens the door and finds a dark, cold place. It is a series of rooms and hallways designed to confuse and disorient. The walls shift and there is an eerie groaning sound that no one can really identify. Will Navidson has found a labyrinth in his own home. He becomes so fixated on exploring it that his relationship with Karen suffers even further. The film follows Will (and a few of his more adventurous friends) on several expeditions into the impossible place and the disastrous consequences that follow.
Danielewski, the actual author, presents everything matter-of-factly. The characters in House of Leaves notice the impossibility of the hallways and the door and the labyrinth, but Will especially is more curious than anything. If it was me and a spatially unlikely hallways opened up to a dreary netherworld in my living room, I would run the fuck away. But Will enlists some friends to explore the void. House of Leaves is never scary, exactly. Not in any kind of visceral, accelerated heartbeat, sweaty palms kind of way. It is profoundly creepy. The idea of finding out your house is physically impossible is unsettling, and the book really sustains that feeling. The interjections from Johnny Truant also notch up the creep factor, because clearly whatever he found in the manuscript has severely affected him. The fact that the same things lurks somewhere ahead of you, the reader, makes his gradual unraveling some extra pathos.
The labyrinth is scary, but nothing overtly supernatural really happens there aside from its existence. The labyrinth is a place where it feels like there is some great unknowable evil manifesting itself, but in House of Leaves, it never comes out into the light. The menace is more conspicuous by its absence than anything else. Its still a dangerous place, because the walls shift constantly and things like time and space are mutable there. Rooms get larger and smaller as Will explores them. Wall markings decay. It is also very cold, but the biggest danger comes from the effect the place has on the people within it.
Danieleweski uses a few postmodern tricks to put the reader within the many layers of the characters’ experience. For example, whenever the word “house” appears in the text it always appears in blue while the rest of the text is black:
Even if the word is another language (like domus), the color blue remains. Similarly, the word Minotaur is always in red typeface. These chromatic discrepancies are never directly referenced, and the are actually the least of the author’s devices in House of Leaves. The multiple footnotes (which often contain footnotes of their own) can run on for multiple pages, taking the reader ahead of the primary story, and then making them cut back again. It can get confusing.
If you think that the confusion the reader feels as they navigate the literal labyrinth of the text mirrors the feelings Navidson and company navigating the actual labyrinth, to quote an old English professor I had, “You would not be entirely incorrect in your reading.” The labyrinth could easily be the book itself, concealing multiple paths and blind alleys as it sits on your nightstand. During the more hair-rising scenes of Navidson’s exploration, the text will stretch out putting a sentence on each page, then a few words, then a single word. It makes you turn the pages faster to find out what happens next and ratchets up the tension.
As Navidson loses his sense of perspective and direction, the text starts skewing in unnatural directions on the page.
In lesser hands, this sort of device could easily cross the border into sheer gimmickry and get annoying pretty quick. And if Danielewski had nothing to back it up, it would have. Your mileage may vary, but for me the gestalt effect of these textual manipulations creates a sense of existential dread that outweigh the potential drawbacks. It feels like the author is using these typographical techniques in service of telling his story, not putting them front and center to celebrate cleverness for cleverness’ sake. It feels wrong to call such blatant manipulation of form subtle, but Danielewski delivers House of Leaves with a deft hand that avoids turning into mere masturbatory experimentation with convention. The tale is the most important thing. At the same time, there is some serious depth to the novel. It sticks to your ribs.
As I was reading, I came across a passage that seemed familiar. Like I had read it before, and just something similar, but this particular passage word for word. I couldn’t remember where. It stuck in my head for about a week, dangling at the back of my mind before finally settling into place. It was the spoken word part of the song “Hey Pretty” by Poe. It seems that Danielweski is Poe’s brother and one of her albums is a sort of cross-media adaptation of House of Leaves, a “parallax view of the same story.” I did not know that at the time, though I remembered the song. Evidently, the author appeared in the video for the song doing the actual reading (with more mud-wrestling than appears in the novel itself):