House of Leaves is an exquisite, scary, original and unique tour the force.
House of Leaves is a supernatural, psychological horror novel that reads like a found footage film. It’s quite a unique book, with a unique creative structure, smart themes that are intertwined with a found footage film and a brilliant setup. It’s in no way a standard book. It’s original and nothing you have ever read before or probably will read.
It’s not that easy to read due to the complex structure. It demands attention, patience and focus, but if you are willing to sit down and really read this book, then you will absolutely be rewarded for it’s not only an impressive masterpiece, but also very scary.
The book has two storylines that eventually become intertwined. It starts with a guy named Johnny Truant. He is in his twenties, lives in a small apartment, leads a life full of drugs, alcohol and women and works in a tattoo shop, making needles. But in the end he only wants to find true love. On his days off he roams the city with his best friend Lude. One day Lude tells him that an old man named Zampano who lived in his building has died, and the apartment might be something for Johnny. When they take a look they find all sorts of old documents and papers and photos and letters and it seems to be all about a home video film called The Navidson Record.
This Navidson Record is about the Navidson family, father Will, mother Karen, daughter Daisy and son Chad who moved into a house in Virginia. But something seems to be off. There’s something really wrong with the house’s dimensions. When they go exploring the house, Will finds a secret passage that leads further and further into the house, which is not possible at all. He decides to record it on videotapes for prove that the house can’t exist.
They eventually call in the help of an expedition group consisting of Holloway, Wax and Jed who go on an investigation exploring the depths of the house, with their own cameras recording everything that happens. But something goes terribly wrong and the house hides more than can ever be seen or even imagined.
Why you should read it
First of all it’s such a special unique and original book that every book lover should read it. The structure is unique, telling the story of Johnny who reads all about the Navidsons, but we also follow his life. This is written as footnotes, apart from the main story that is about the Navidsons. But both stories combined form the total story.
These footnotes are written down throughout the book and it takes some time to get used to this whole new form of reading. It feels like you get pulled away from the original story, but in fact it’s more than just footnotes. It’s Johnny’s own story written down by himself which makes it sometimes hard to read. Sometimes it’s not more than random thoughts, just words, without punctuations.
The main story about the Navidsons is best described as a found footage film. Which is very special if you consider that the first mainstream found footage film was only released one year earlier, The Blair Witch Project (1999) that put found footage on the map. You might even say that House of Leaves was ahead of its time.
But it created also a very mysterious vibe and took the unreliable narrative one step further or maybe a couple of steps. Zampano was in fact blind. So he couldn’t have seen the Navidson tapes himself, but it was only described to him by his assistants. He dictated his analyses and interpretations and they read to him other reference works and sources for more information. And some sources or reference people don’t even exist at all.
But also what is captured on camera is maybe not all that reliable. The main question is if the Navidson Record has ever existed, if it really happened. While Johnny did his utmost best to find it, he never succeeded. So was it all real, or just inside Zampano’s head, a cry for attention?
But the interesting and brilliant part is that these three stories are heavily intertwined. They all are about the same theme; love. But they all lose themselves in an obsession. Zampano digs deeper into the film, while Will goes deeper into the house and Johnny drifts deeper into a hallucinogenic poetic state, like a feverish dream. Nobody knows what’s real anymore.
Zampano discusses the film as a case study and addresses themes like Echo and The Labyrinth of Minos. Will is obsessed with the house and adventure which unconsciously sets him on a path of self destruction and self sacrifice. While Johnny is slowly sinking into madness.
These themes about getting lost and losing yourself into something is the main red thread though the labyrinth. With the house, a (symbolical) body, at its core. But it’s also a journey to find love. Will has lost his love for Karen, and their marital problems certainly have something to do with his obsession with the house. While he is searching within the bellows of the house, he might be really looking for his lost love and wants to find it back, but he is looking in the wrong places. But Karen only comes to care for him again when she’s afraid he might not come back and is forever lost. The further the distance the bigger the desire.
Johnny is also looking for a lost love. His mother who is committed in a psychiatric hospital, The Whale (which also hints at Will being Jonas who is trapped in the whale or even Ahab and life can’t be fully understood). He longs for the love of his mother who abandoned him, not at free will, but it explains his failed search for love and why he is sedating himself.
Although these themes make up the whole book and make it very intriguing and interesting, it’s also told in a very enthralling and gripping way. It’s not hard to care for each character who are fully developed with flaws and all.
The story of Johnny and the story of the Navidsons have very different tones and atmospheres and combined with the appendices it’s a most varied book.
But don’t forget it’s a horror too. The scenes about Will’s descent into the house are also truly scary. It’s exciting and adventurous and he and the expedition team take us with them on a weird and thrilling journey in which anything can happen. It’s a horror story unlike you have ever read.
My favorite part
The final descent into the house is wonderfully written. It’s scary and weird and original, but it’s also very creatively written down unto the pages. The words form stairs, or are triangles in a corner of the pages, the sentences are written upside down or are mirrored. They reflect what is happening inside the house with the explorers. It’s so creative and imaginative and really adds to the weirdness and to the horror of the story.
The way the three stories and the themes are intertwined is masterfully done. It has several themes, references and they refer to each other. It is so well executed that it doesn’t interfere with the reading experience, but is in fact a great addition to it. It also makes it an excellent book to reread. Just like Will you will discover other places hidden inside the book, more details you first didn’t notice because it’s so rich and big.
The book is a real accomplishment and a wonderful read which deserves to be read. It definitely has a cult status and is a literature masterpiece as well.
A favorite quote
“Is it possible to think of that place as unshaped by human perceptions?”
‘It meant photographing something unlike anything he had ever encountered before, even in previous visits to the house, a place without population, without participants, a place that would threaten no one else’s existence but his own.’
‘Too bad so much of his life had to slip between the lines of even his own words.’
‘Passion has little to do with euphoria and everything to do with patience. It is not about feeling good. It is about endurance. Like patience, passion comes from the same Latin root: pati. It does not mean to flow with exuberance. It means to suffer.’
Thrill factor: ★★★★☆
Scare factor: ★★★★☆
Surreal factor: ★★★★★
Originality factor: ★★★★★
Entertainment factor: ★★★★★
House of Leaves is written by Mark Z. Danielewski and first published by Random House in 2000. It consist of 705 pages.