The Big Read: ‘House of Leaves’ (Part One)

house-of-leaves

“Largeness has always been a condition of the weird and unsafe; it is over-whelming, too much or too big. […] [the uncanny] is neither homey nor protective, nor comforting, nor familiar. It is alien, exposed, and unsettling, or in other words, the perfect description of the house on Ash Tree Lane.” [28]

“an unremarkable door too, but still a door to the dead.” [xv]

House of Leaves (2000, Pantheon Books) by Mark Z. Danielewski is a book I have been meaning to read for literally years. I first heard of the novel sometime towards the end of my university course, but being busy enough with my dissertation and with weekly reading close to four novels a week, I decided to remember the name but wait to check it out. Occasionally in shops, I’d find it, flick through it, and wonder exactly what it was about…  Now, the casual skipper-through-er might well already be aware that many of the pages in this book have a somewhat ‘experimental’ look to them, and that alone would usually be enough to get me interested. In truth, however, it was more the suggestion that this huge book (clocking in it at just over 700 pages) was actually imbued with plenty of horror elements alongside the more unconventional, postmodern prose techniques that really caught my interest.

And so, university finished. But I still hadn’t read it.

A few more years pass. Still nope.

And, now, I finally, FINALLY have a copy.

And woah – even though I’m only at the start – boy, was it worth the wait…

So, before we start: I’ve titled this series ‘The Big Read’ to make it distinct from other miniseries I’m doing on this blog – such as my ‘I Can Remember It…’ series – as this book, due to its size, and also as a little experiment, is going to be analysed and written about through a few posts, rather than one huge master-post. I’m not sure how many yet! And as it stands, this is only the very beginning of the book. You could, if you like, read this blog post alone and read the book for yourself relatively spoiler free as this post will only be discussing the first five chapters (around the first 40-60 pages – including the preface section and all footnotes) and general details gleaned so far, so if this blog post gets you wondering…go check it out for yourself!

The image above illustrates which edition I am reading from. There are some differences between this and an earlier edition (which I found harder to purchase overall – the current edition, however, is readily available on both the high street and online), which features particular characteristics that actively interact with the reader’s experience of the novel: the word house in the earlier edition was printed in blue, with other colours present for specific passages or phrases (red, purple); in the current edition, the word house is written off-kilter, often slightly too high or low on the line, as if the processor/type-writer has keys which are off balance, in a slightly lighter grey colour (the volume as far as I can tell features no colour changes). The reason I mention this is that blue colouring vs off-kilter could have different interpretations in analysis, but as my edition is in plain ol’ b&w, the colour aspect will largely be missing from my discussions. C’est la vie.


When exploring a cluttered old apartment near his friend’s home, Johnny Truant discovers a collection of writing; parts of it are documented on reams of paper, whilst other parts are scribbled onto scraps, and bits and pieces. Seemingly left behind by the deceased occupant: an old blind man who was named  Zampanò, Johnny takes this abandoned collection  home to read – and makes a bizarre and disturbing discovery, which completely alters his life forever… He presents the papers for the reader, having assembled them himself and researched extensively about the subject therein. He frames the primary text of the novel: ‘The Navidson Record.’

The papers (seemingly written by  Zampanò) make up an academic analysis of a found footage film by a well-known photographer – the film purports to be a true capture of a ‘haunted’ house, whilst the papers are referred to as ‘The Navidson Record.’ The papers analyse the film, focusing on sights and sounds, the history of the film (such as the teaser snapshots that emerged before its full release), and the many scholarly theories and writings about the events and people it depicts. Named so, after the photographer who filmed the events, Will Navidson, the film was made by numerous cameras set up around the photographer’s home as well as on hand-held camcorders: an attempt by Navidson to mix work and family together. It shows the Navidson’s (Will, his wife, Karen, and their two children) moving into the their new home on Ash Tree Lane – a far cry from the city they are all used to. A huge country home, it seems a peaceful change of scenery for the already stressed couple and their excitable young children. However, strange events begin to occur.

A new space is discovered in the home – a doorway which simply adjoined the master bedroom to the children’s room now contains a short new space, like a cupboard, in between the two rooms. Despite attempts to rationalise that they simply overlooked the space, they measure the home from end to end, interior vs exterior. The impossible has occurred: the interior is slightly bigger, not by much, than the exterior. Navidson calls upon his brother and a friend, and together they all confirm that the house is slightly larger inside than out. Soon, that space is forgotten about, when a new doorway appears in their downstairs living space – which opens into an all-black hallway. An impossible hallway as the door leads directly into what should just be the wall – and beyond that the garden – yet a hallway is accessible through this newly appeared door. And inside the hallway the impossible increases: it seems to contain a labyrinthine, shifting, uncanny space, of gigantic proportions.

So far in the novel, Johnny Truant is the framing device. He introduces us to the discovery of the papers and to the figure of Zampanò (who, so far, remains a mysterious narrator of sorts). A troubled man, Truant works in a tattoo shop, spending his evenings with his friend Lude, chatting to women at bars and feeling dissatisfied with his life. Truant’s interjections are often presented as footnotes which encompass whole pages at a time, forcing one to stop reading the Navidson Record and focus on Truant’s interruptions and observations; these are written in a wider typewriter-esque font, distinct from the more traditional bookish-looking font used in the record segments. Oftentimes, there are recurring spelling and grammar mistakes in his footnotes, giving Truant’s writing a simplistic authenticity – he is tonally not the author of the Navidson Record, who writes in a far more academically competent and confident tone. In those sections, Classical and foreign languages make steady inter-textual appearances, usually to strengthen the more philosophical musings Zampanò delves into. What this creates is two fictional authors (both distinct in their prose) whom the true author (Danielewski) hides behind. This is hardly uncommon, especially in postmodern works or first-person narratives, but has been cleverly thought out here as a literary device in its own right. When one opens the book we are introduced to fictional editors first whose disclaimers try to make the whole text appear true: it is really a nonfiction piece. Danielewski effectively begins the novel with complex layering of prose as the editors introduce Truant as the presenter of the piece which was truly authored by Zampanò. Do you follow? It’s almost like a found footage film inside a found footage film…!

This multi-layering effect makes for a far more dense read. The interruptions often bring more light to the work, but also help to add to the surreality of the Navidson Record. By itself, the record reads as a believable essay on a film. It uses typical techniques used in any scholarly article on media – often referencing other articles, critics, or contemporaries to make a point. Something any essay writer is familiar with. However, Truant sheds added light for us, making some elements of the story stranger than they would be without; he brings the ‘present’ into the novel, often showing the far reaching implications of the record.

For instance, we know early on that the deceased Zampanò was blind – and was likely blind when he reviewed the film too. Truant himself brings up the uncomfortable question: How then is he able to dissect scenes visually and so vividly, if he is the true author of the papers? If, indeed, he wrote it. Also, many of the footnotes cross-reference material which Truant cannot find. He cannot find any of the books the author references which have been written on the Navidson film, and Zampanò often writes of the film as if it were a cultural phenomenon, studied in schools and often argued about: again, these tapes cannot be found by Truant, nor does he know of any reference to them outside of these papers. There are many unaccounted-for discrepancies throughout. It’s as if the whole record is made up.

And yet there is an underlying horror theme throughout – the corridors are harbouring something inside of them. Deep growling is mentioned in the record towards Chapter VI, and Truant is beginning to hear growling and experiences hallucinations(?) after his study of the papers. When Zampanò was found dead in his apartment, it was seen as natural causes by the paramedics, who discounted the claw gouges in the wood floor by his body as no matching wounds were found on the corpse. There is an animalistic, vicious, and unseen threat throughout, that is somehow linked to the impossible corridors that appear and grow and shift seemingly without reason.

Horror elements in fiction can vary just as much as their film counterparts, from out and out horror to the more subtle and growing themes which lay beneath the surface. House of Leaves,  despite my only beginning it, is genuinely one of the creepiest books I have ever read, and weaves the out and out perfectly with the understated. And I can admit: I am enjoying every moment of it. This is one of the few novels I have read, as a fan of horror, which has genuinely creeped me out. Some of it is simple, such as the opening of the novel, with the editors quiet explanation that the work was originally “privately distributed” and the opening warning: “This is not for you.” The exclusivity of it makes it seem ‘underground,’ and you can’t help but think of ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here’ with that simple opening line, alone on a page at the start. The mysterious corridors, effectively captured as a found footage film within a book, are also effective for me personally: I love the surreal in horror and the less you know the happier I am (and by happier, I mean happily-creeped-out). The found footage element gives an intimacy to it and a supposed authenticity, amplified by Zampanò’s academic discussion and dissection of the film; it all rings true and I can’t help but imagine that it is a real academic paper I am reading (which certainly adds the creep factor tenfold).

The uncanny elements are rife: the larger interior space dysfunction and the labyrinthine black corridors, alongside the unseen menace which stalks Truant after he reads the record (and with it possibly the killer of Zampanò), suggests further questions which don’t have easy answers. Why do the corridors appear? What forms them? Where do they lead? Do they have an end? And what stalks the two fictional authors? Is the house haunted or is this something much harder to describe? All of these questions add to the work, they don’t detract from it. The uncanny and horror go hand in hand, illustrated here by revealing there is nothing more unsettling than comfortable safe spaces made threatening: be that a new home in the picturesque country, or a good read within a collection of papers…

The more unsettling elements come towards Chapter V and Chapter VI and onwards, as explorations are carried out inside the downstairs corridor, and Truant’s footnotes indicate he has had closer calls with something particularly disturbing during work. There is the early suggestion too that reading the book will somehow affect your life. That it might not happen instantly…but will happen further down the line: some perceivable change will occur [xxiii]. A creepy thought presented to the reader, but one that any lover of a mind-bending horror story will appreciate and find hard to resist.

Now, it’s clear that the postmodern elements of this novel increase later on too – experimental text positioning, overlaying of lines upon lines, shaped blocks of prose, single lines and words, and untranslated sections start to appear more frequently further in the work, and I am very much looking forward to them, likely adding a challenging and cryptic aspect. These changes are certainly starting to take place  early too, as extensive footnotes and interruptions here tend to defy the usual use of such devices, increasing the levels which the novel is working upon.

And this novel is by no means an easy read. The book itself is large, not only in page-size but in text too. It is a dense read (the best word I can think for it…). Not in a way that frustrates, as it has been intentionally crafted this way: it forces the reader to analyse and pay attention, but also highlights the uncanny too (there is so much to take in, and some of it being so hidden it creates an ‘unconscious’ layer to the book almost). The record has the same effect on the reader as it did to Truant – it has a hypnotic ability, drawing you into the analysis of the films, whilst also providing its own interpretations and suggests of themes as you the reader form them also. Just like Truant, the reader is also interpreting and trying to make sense of the larger puzzle. Just like Zampanò, the reader may well be drawing on their own inter-textual cross-examination as they read. I know I am. For instance, the word house is typed off-kilter each time making its appearance noticeable on the page, but also subtly making the house on Ash Tree Lane more monstrous with each appearance of the word; it acts a cipher too within the novel: you analyse and obsess just like Truant does. It also makes the word house appear to ‘haunt’ the text. The endless footnotes by Zampanò also make for a difficult read (he at one point includes well over a page of names attributed to photographers he is referencing [64-7], opposed to using et al or simply choosing a few for examples) which adds a chaotic but still strangely balanced vibe: the tone of Zampanò’s footnotes are hardly erratic (at this point…), though perhaps misjudged. It also suggests a mind which is taking in so much information and processing it in such a way that at times it may baffle the reader, or force the reader to think on more than one level themselves. It’s not simply the plot of the record, or the story Truant is a part of, which is the main crux of the prose, but it is many stories built up one over the other that the reader must try to find meaning through. We effectively act the same as the two writers.

For me, so far at least, House of Leaves is exactly the kind of book I had been hoping it was. It challenges me, but also creates such a vivid image in the mind that Danielewski’s storytelling is perfectly matched with the more experimental prose choices: and neither overshadows the other, but instead they work in tandem, giving the reader a unique reading experience and one that is genuinely unsettling.

I seriously encourage you to seek out this book. Later blog posts will analyse the details of the plot in more depth, but for now, this is the bare bones laying out of the book. In many ways, we haven’t really delved into the novel’s own twisting corridors just yet.

As the preface line suggests: This is not for you – and it may well not be to everyone’s taste. Those of you who prefer a little challenge with their horror, and especially those of you who are drawn to the uncanny or surreal in your literary preferences, however, should especially challenge that opening line and experience the book for themselves. It just might be.

NEXT UP: The Cases That Haunt Us

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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