House of Leaves

I recently read Mark Z. Danielewski’s first novel, House of Leaves.

Wow.

The book is a horror novel, but strangely, it is not straight-up scary.  When I was given an explanation of what the book was about– a friend, who was rereading the book while in the car on a long road trip, offered, “It’s about a house that is bigger on the inside than the outside”– I shrugged.  It seemed a fun little idea for a short story, but enough to form a book as hefty as the one he carried around?  He could see my skepticism, and thankfully, handed me the book, inviting me to just read the introduction.House_of_leaves

Suddenly, I was introduced into the mind of Johnny Truant, a sex-obsessed, drug-abusing tattoo artist who, through unusual means, is introduced to a manuscript, heavily needing an editor to prepare it and its complex documentation for printing, written by a blind man who died gruesomely and mysteriously.  Immediately I both hated Truant for his lifestyle and was strangely fascinated by him.  Then, as quickly as I began to be drawn into what he said about the manuscript, which makes up the majority of the text of House of Leaves, the introduction was over, and my friend had reclaimed his copy of the book to resume his study thereof.

The introduction referenced a short film, “The Five and a Half Minute Hallway,” in which the owner of the titular House films an unduly long hallway in his family’s new residence.  This method of presenting the “bigger on the inside” idea was surprisingly riveting, and I had to know more.

So, a week or so after getting back from the trip, I tracked down the lone copy of House of Leaves a local bookstore had.  Wincing to pay nearly twenty dollars for a trade paperback (yes, I want to be a writer and make my money selling books, and yet I usually buy books from thrift stores), I walked home with my new acquisition, reading while I walked (a skill I acquired in college).  I quickly reread the introductory section, then excitedly dug into The Navidson Record, the blind man’s manuscript as edited by Truant.

I was surprised to see that it was written very much as a scholarly paper, with extensive footnotes (complete with publication info) for almost everything in the text.  It chronicled and picked apart a documentary film (which Truant explains in his own editorial notes he can find no other reference to, nor to most of the noted texts) filmed by Will Navidson, the owner of the house.  Quickly, the story begins to work on two fronts, the blind man’s Record and Truant’s experiences while working with the text (which, in spite of fictionalized sexual exploits and parties he throws in, quickly becomes very dark).  Soon appendices, referenced in footnotes, begin to become part of the story as well, working to further and provide context for both of the novel’s stories.  The book even goes so far as to contain letters written in code, which resulted in me writing in the margins of the book, something I doggedly avoid in spite of years of being told to do so by professors and teachers.  Simply, as the story drew me in, I had to know everything the book had to offer me.  I started with one bookmark, but midway through my read had to incorporate four or five at a time to keep myself from missing anything as footnotes of footnotes quickly led me down the rabbit holes that litter this story.  It is also very impressive how Danielewski makes use of how the house-of-leaves-sideways-2words are laid out on the page, or what color certain words are, as part of how the story is conveyed.  The reading becomes very difficult at times to follow because of the novelist’s wildly experimental techniques, but as a reader you feel as though the novel is worth all of the time and effort that was necessary to put in to get through it.

So simply, if you like fascinating, well-written horror that breaks genre conventions, read this book.  But, be warned: the novel is ergodic, confusing, and difficult.  It is scary on a very psychological level.  You don’t walk away from it feeling truly satisfied, because there are questions that cannot be answered– it’s what keeps the characters up at night, too.  And a heads-up to readers who don’t care for certain types of mature content, there are some uncomfortably sexually explicit sections in Truant’s notes (I skipped over most of these notes– they are important only as far as they show Truant’s imagined self, which gets broken down throughout the text).

A pro tip for those who want to get a really full experience in their read of the book, it may be worthwhile to get the album Haunted by Danielewski’s sister, the musical artist Poe, which is a companion piece House of Leaves (featuring such songs as “5&1/2 Minute Hallway” and “Dear Johnny”).

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