Last summer I was fresh out of books and asked my friend for a recommendation. He handed me, House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, giving me absolutely no further context about the plot or characters. Little did I know, I was in for the literary ride of my life.
(Fair warning: Mild Spoilers Ahead)
At its core, House of Leaves is a horror novel that centers around a story of a man named Will Navidson who unknowingly buys a house that is physically larger on the inside than the outside. Navidson’s discovery prompts his exploration into a secret doorway in his house that leads into a seemingly never-ending maze of darkness and potential monsters. Navidson records the entire experience and releases it as a movie, which is the subject of heated debate, as many question the authenticity of the events.
The reader is introduced to this entire plot by a completely different narrator, Johnny Truant, who stumbles upon Navidson’s story when he discovers a manuscript that turns out to be an academic review of Navidson’s film. Interestingly enough, Truant says he can find no evidence that the film or Navidson himself ever existed in real life. Additionally, the manuscript, which is written by a mysterious man named Zampanò, is wholly unfinished and the existing parts are a scrambled jumble of notes. Truant tasks himself with reconstructing the narrative and getting to the truth of the story. The project becomes an obsession as Truant increasingly loses touch with reality and the events of past and present, fiction and reality blur together across the multiple storylines.
There are additional perspectives throughout the novel including notes from Zampanò, who voices his ideas through pages of annotations and footnotes that are included on the margins of the actual House of Leaves book. There are also transcripts and interview notes pertaining to the Navidson film that are included within the actual book as well. The story is told non-linearly as the book continually flip flops from all of these various perspectives that occurred at completely different points in time.
If this all sounds confusing and meta, well yes it is. But that’s what makes House of Leaves so unique. It’s a literary feat that somehow weaves multiple storylines into one coherent overall work. The result is at times disorienting, but this all adds to the general atmosphere of unease and dread that accompanies readers as they traverse the events of the novel. This disorienting feeling also directly parallels the events of the story and puts readers in the mindset of its characters, as both Navidson and Truant become increasingly disoriented by their realities as their own journeys progress.
Aside from having an absolutely enthralling plot, the physical reading experience of House of Leaves is unparalleled. Before you even begin reading the book, astute readers might notice that the physical cover of the book is smaller than it’s interior pages, a subtle reference to a house that is bigger on the inside than the outside. From then on, the tricks keep coming.
As Navidson explores the endless maze of the inner house, readers accompany him on the journey as the text physically mirrors the twists and turns he takes. Portions of the book require readers to turn the book sideways or upside down in order to read the text. This technique once again further immerses readers in the mindset of the characters. As Navidson descends stairs, the text physically descends as well and in turn the reader follows. Some sections even require readers to use a mirror to decipher the text, adding another layer of interactivity between book and reader.
There are also pages and pages of footnotes left behind by Zampanò. Oddly enough, most of the footnotes are completely made up, referencing fictional authors, books and films that never actually existed. As previously mentioned there are a variety of annotations from the Zampanò, Truant, and the unnamed editors that dot the outskirts of the pages. While at times, this is tremendously burdensome, the scattered nature of all of these separate parts means it is essentially impossible to read the book the same way twice.
This brings me to perhaps my favorite point of the entire book, which is that, House of Leaves is essentially a ‘choose your own adventure’ type of a book, where the reader dictates the order in which some events occur. In reality, the book can actually be as simple or complex as you desire it to be. At face value, one could simply read the entire plot, ignoring the myriad of footnotes and portions that require a mirror. The plot would still make 100% sense and the read would still be quite enjoyable. But for truly devoted fans, the book offers worlds of tiny details to be discovered.
For instance, many of the fictional footnotes contain hidden codes that spell out secret messages. When deciphered, these parts can add additional tidbits of information about certain characters and events. This information may not be essential to the overall story, but for hardcore fans, it can shed new light on specific plot points or even help to confirm or aid in the creation of certain theories. There are even online fan forums devoted to uncovering these very mysteries.
The House of Leaves lore also extends far behind the singular book. Danielewski’s sister, who is a professional musician known as Poe, released a full length album called Haunted, which acts as a companion piece to the book. The album features tracks titled “House of Leaves,” “Exploration B,” and “The 5 & 1/2 Minute Hallway,” all of which are references to plot points in the books. There are plenty of other subtler easter eggs hidden in the lyrics and music videos as well.
All of these aspects from footnotes to albums are wholly unnecessary to understanding House of Leaves. Taken in all at once, all of this material can seem overbearing and unnecessarily complicated. But once again, all of these factors allow different readers to take different paths, making House of Leaves a completely one-of-a-kind interactive experience that is unparalleled in the written medium.