House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski

house-of-leaves-by-mark-z-danielewski cover iamgeGenre: Horror
Publisher: Pantheon Books
Published: 2000
Reviewer Rating:
Book Review by Paul Kane

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This is not for you. Quite a bold statement for the beginning of a book by a virtually unknown author. But he’s right, this might not be for you. If you’re expecting to pick up House of Leaves and read an average horror novel, with a beginning, middle and an end, then think again. This is experimental fiction at it’s very best, brought to you in the most inventive of ways. Be warned, Danielewski’s masterwork is so cutting edge you might just slice open your fingers as you’re turning the page.

When Johnny Truant, sometime needle-sharpener in an L.A. tattoo parlour, discovers a black trunk in a mysterious old blind man’s apartment, he simply can’t resist looking inside. But it’s the worst mistake he’ll ever make in his life. For in here he finds scraps of papers, notes and drawings, all pertaining to a documentary film called ‘The Navidson Record’.

Before his untimely death, the old man, whose name was Zampano, had been working on the definitive book about this film – a film he could never have seen (indeed a film which may not even exist). The more Truant reads, the more involved he becomes with the story: that of Will Navidson and his family, and their tragic move to Virginia. Navidson, an award-winning photojournalist, set out in the early nineties to make a candid movie about how he, his girlfriend, and their two kids settled into their new home together – but instead it turned into something much more disturbing. Because upon returning from a trip to Seattle, Navidson and co. found that the house had changed: a closet had suddenly appeared in the master bedroom that shouldn’t have been there. A closet with reality-defying proportions. A closet that was oppressively black inside.

Sometime later they discovered a new hallway downstairs which was just as dark (in more ways than one). Navidson drafted in people he knew to help him fathom out what was going on: his brother, Tom; Billy Reston, a paraplegic university professor; an explorer named Holloway and his team. But the dimensions of the hallway kept on shifting, warping, distorting – and as they made their way tentatively through the icy cold labyrinth the men often heard strange growling sounds. It isn’t long before Truant’s perceptions are altering, too – the tale intruding upon his own life. He begins to see things out of the corner of his eye, big things with claws; he daren’t even answer the telephone, never mind venture out of his apartment. And as for the nightmares, well he gets these so often he really should be used to them by now. Except no one ever really gets used to nightmares, do they?

On first impressions House of Leaves struck me as a blatant attempt to duplicate what The Blair Witch Project had done last year, only in book form. Verisimilitude is clearly the name of Danielewski’s game, and he wants to play the game with you. The book reads like an academic film tie-in, with numerous footnotes, photographs, quotes, interviews, and an index that takes up over forty pages. It’s also very long and very heavy (the words ‘directory’ and ‘telephone’ come to mind), as well as being heavy-going – certain parts requiring a PhD to fully comprehend. But after I found out the author had been working on this for ten years, painstakingly researching it and even gauging reader-reactions on the Internet, I realised that he was the true innovator and as such deserves all the credit.

And sure, I could ramble on all day about the changes in typeface (Times Roman for Zampano, Courier for Truant — what else?), the crossings out, the way the two stories run parallel to each other, the layered meanings, the realistic character interaction, the righteous and often hilarious critique of analytical procedures (even to the point of attributing significance to objects like coffee cups and hairbrushes), the way Danielewski plays with sentence structure during the almost hallucinogenic trips through the house — sometimes limiting them to one word a page so you’re experiencing the action at breakneck speed. But at its very heart lies a truly frightening, and surprisingly elementary, tale about a place that makes the residences from Poltergeist and The Haunting look like prime real estate — a place which may or may not be a figment of Zampino’s imagination (or should that be Truant’s? an accomplished storyteller as you’ll see).

This is a novel that will probably be dissected and talked about every bit as much as ‘The Navidson Record’, and probably for a good deal longer. Buy it, read it, be afraid: it’s as simple as that.

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