OcTerror · Reviews

“Walls Keep Shifting”: House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski


Adult horror usually implies Stephen King, erotic vampires, or classic works that are too dense for kids to understand. It seems that once a person outgrows YA horror with its cliché love plots and semi-minimal gore, there isn’t much to choose from. After doing a little hunting and research, a book kept popping up as a recommendation. Some said that it kept them up for nights and plagued their thoughts. Others said that it was so long they had to stop half way through. I took up the challenge.

House of Leaves is an experimental novel in the purest form, a combination of academic discourse and literary fiction. There are two different plotlines: Johnny Truant, who discovers a mysterious manuscript in a dead man’s house, and The Navidson Report, the manuscript itself that talks about a documentary involving a house that’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. Most of the main text belongs to The Navidson Report, with Johnny’s story in the footnotes. It’s hard to know what’s real or not as some things are grounded in known reality and others are confirmed as fake.

There are genuine spine-tingling moments that are well built up to or come out of nowhere to shock. Johnny’s story and growing insanity worry reader’s that they too may be affected by what they read. The Navidson Report seems like a typical haunted house narrative at first, but as the story develops the house grows into something more sentient and sinister. Each story feeds the other, ramping up the confusing and suspense without completely losing devoted readers.

At the beginning of the novel, Johnny is the receptionist for a tattoo parlor, hopelessly crushing on a stripper named Thumper. His friend, Lude, takes him to ransack the home of a recently deceased neighbor where he steals a trunk full of papers, pictures, and scribbles. He comes to discover that this is a manuscript for a nonfiction book analyzing a documentary that doesn’t exist—but there are interviews, in-depth descriptions, and academic papers to back it up. His life becomes consumed by the writing until he doesn’t know what’s real or not.

The Navidson Report covers the story of the Navidsons, primarily the marriage between Will and Karen as they move out to the country to regain some intimacy and bond as a family. Will is a world-famous photographer and he sets out to document the family coming together, but finds something more interesting in the shifting architecture of the house. A closet suddenly appears between two rooms, a hallway takes five and a half minutes to walk down, bookcases that were flush against the wall suddenly aren’t. The more that they investigate the house, the more obvious it becomes that their home isn’t safe anymore.

The reason I call this an ‘experimental’ book instead of just a novel with multiple perspectives is because of the formatting. Some sections are struck through. The word house appears in blue anytime it’s said. The fonts differ between Johnny’s story, the Navidson Report, and the editors’ notes. Some pages have music notes. Some have a single word. The words shrink and expand, echoing the agoraphobic and claustrophobic nature of the narrative. Things shift and change without warning, and you have to turn the book several ways at times just to know what’s going on.

This book is not a page-turner. It requires thought and concentration. I suffered from dizziness and nausea, headaches and a migraine while reading this book over the course of several weeks. It’ll make you question the familiarity of your own home, whether or not the room is shrinking or growing, and why are stairs and hallways so long?

Many people say that this novel is pretentious and over-played, the drama and story too drawn out when they could be more concise, and the horror not as intense as it could be. Others would point out that this is, at its heart, a love story and it works well within that scope. I found that I was as eager to escape the labyrinth of this book as the characters were to navigate the mysterious house. Does 662 pages seem long? Yes, absolutely. Is it worth it? At times.

I recommend House of Leaves to people who love experimental novels that play with formatting, to people who want love stories in horrible situations, and to architecture fans who love scary houses. There might not be enough time to read it before this Halloween, but there’s plenty before next year. So grab your flashlight, some snacks and supplies, and try to navigate this book without getting lost.