Reviewing: House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

Content warnings: Sexual assault and violence, cruelty to animals, character death, drug use, claustrophobia. 

My rating: 3.5/4 books out of 5 

Highlights: 

  • This book is a work of art
  • The Navidson Record is fantastic, I would 100% watch that documentary. 
  • Disintegration of relationships between people
  • Layered narrative

House of Leaves is a documentary within a story wrapped up in a dissertation presented as a book. With me so far? No? That’s fine. Let me try to clarify. At the centre of this BEAST of a book is the house on Ash Tree Lane. The house is almost a character in the book, and the word ‘house’ itself never appears in line with the rest of the text. Stylistically, this book was incredible. I was physically turning the thing in my hands to follow the text as it span, reversed, looped and dived across the page. I mean LOOK AT IT:

(Apologies for the change in light, I have a terrible phone camera and was sitting under an umbrella in the garden in that second one) 

These pages are at least the right way up, which is more than can be said for others. 

So, lets take this layer by layer. The main framework of the text is vaguely academic in nature. An evaluation and discussion of a documentary called The Navidson Record written by a man named Zampano. He is dead, this is of little consequence. A man named Johnny Truant acts as the novel’s primary active narrator. He’s the one who takes on Zampano’s life work and attempts to finish it in between informing the reader who he’s slept with or what drugs he’s taken. At the center of it all is the record, a documentary which Johnny has never heard of. This is a book that grabs you by the shirt collar, slaps you and reminds you it isn’t real at least three times a chapter. Whether or not The Navidson Record, or Zampano, or Truant exist is irrelevant. The book exists, and you are reading it, and that is all you can confirm. 

Honestly, Johnny is the ultimate unreliable narrator – which I usually like – straight up questioning what is real in this book about a documentary which even to him is purely fictitious. There are some genuinely chilling moments where Johnny is convinced that something is coming for him in the darkness, where he pictures in exact detail the moment he will die over and over again but it never happens. His grip on reality is shaky at the start and non-existent by the end. You all know I love this in horror fiction. 

I just didn’t like him. 

The Navidson Record, the documentary that explores the labyrinth of a house seated at the centre of this monstrosity, was fantastic. The house is a character of its own, warping and howling, looping and dropping into nothingness. The claustrophobic sense of tightness and darkness captured with only descriptions of those shifting walls was just brilliant. The dissertation-style analysis of it slowed the pace a little, sure, but it was otherwise a realistic and interesting way of framing the Record. Contrastingly, Truant’s footnotes were a chore to read. They were important, I’m sure, but that didn’t make them pleasant. Making less and less sense as he loses his mind to this book, we get detailed and increasingly violent depictions of sexual encounters, drug use, a particularly upsetting scene where a dog dies and allusions to his mother (whose letters are contained in the index of the book and are approximately a thousand times more interesting than her son’s ramblings and may or may not directly speak to Zampano himself). The font choice for Johnny’s footnotes was so difficult for me to keep track of that I had to use my bookmark to underline each line as I read it and avoid wandering eyes. I had a migraine mid-way through reading this book and dared not open it for days unless the pain came back. 

LOOK AT IT. 

House of Leaves is rammed with code, so much so that it was only after finishing the book and looking at the Goodreads page I even noticed some of it was there at all. There are entire forums online dedicated to uncovering the secret messages of this text, to finding questions posed in the footnotes to the reader, or between narrators, and apparently there’s even more in the colour version (mine was black and white, and even that one I could only afford with a sizeable voucher, it’s £30!). This presents an interesting question for me: if you have to do research after reading a book in order to understand said book, is that a good or bad thing? This is a book determined to confuse you, and at times I felt a bit stupid – like I was obviously missing something, but after 350 or so pages of increasingly unstable and disorientating text I just couldn’t see it. This is a book that delights in how clever it is, and sometimes that’s exhausting. I’d love to be able to go back through and find all the hidden messages and codes, but I do not have the energy. Google it, these forums have been going since the book’s publication in 2000. Reading this book is an experience unlike anything else I have ever read, so much so that it was worth Johnny’s endless babbling about a stripper named Thumper (not her real name) just to see it all. I have a huge respect for whoever formatted this thing for print because damn they were not paid enough. How do you even do this sort of stuff? 

This is a book that left me with incredibly mixed feelings regarding how to review it. To solve this, I broke my thoughts down into a few key questions: 

Was it scary?

In places, yes. However, when the Navidson Record and its shifting walls of shadow and madness started to pull me in, Johnny would pipe up about how he once had sex in a car with a woman whose boyfriend beat him up while he was on every concievable drug at the same time and I’d kind of lose interest. The most interesting part about Johnny, for me, was his mother’s letters in the Whalestoe Letters in the appendix of the main book. 

Was it interesting?

Definitely. The format alone was incredible and I did enjoy reading it and unravelling the secrets I could find within its pages. The story itself was fascinating, if very confusing. 

Was it worth the money? 

In my opinion? Not really. I had a voucher and ended up paying no more than £10-15 for this book. This book can cost anywhere from that to £30+ depending on edition and where you get it from. That alone is a massive financial blow for a lot of people for a single book, never mind one that you then have to do research to understand. I like to think I’m relatively okay at understanding books, or I’ve wasted a lot of money on a degree, and some of the stuff I’m finding in these forums flew straight over my head. Did I know that Johnny’s mother’s letters directly address Zampano when I read them? No. I found that online. To me there’s a difference between a book making you think, and a book determined to outwit you no matter how much thinking you do. 

This is a complex book, and I’ve only scratched the surface here. All I know is that the house on Ash Tree Lane will stay with me for a long time, for better or for worse. 

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