House of Leaves
by Mark Z. Danielewski
Published by Pantheon
710 pages, 2000
Buy it online
This Weird Old House
Reviewed by David Middleton
The trouble all starts over a quarter of an inch. Will Navidson, his partner Karen Green and their two children move from the city and take up residence in an old house in the Virginia countryside. Navidson, a Pulitzer prize-winning photojournalist, decides to put his career on hold in an attempt to save his disintegrating relationship with his family. But for Navidson -- "Navy" to his friends -- work is never far behind. He decides to document the move and occupancy of the house by mounting video cameras in every room -- often carrying one himself -- to record his family and how they adapt to their new environment.
After a weekend away they come home to find a new closet, complete with glass-knobbed white door at its entrance, but black and featureless inside. Thinking that they may have just overlooked this seemingly new architectural feature, Navy and Karen acquire blueprints of the house. Comparing house to blueprints turns up no closet so Navy sets about measuring the house for himself only to discover that the house is bigger inside than it is outside. By exactly one quarter of an inch. Navidson tries to put this discrepancy down to "a case of bad math" but when he calls on the help of friends, professionals and his twin brother Tom, he finds that the house has somehow increased in interior size. Things get even stranger one night when Navy hears his children's voices echo through the house as though the sound were coming from a greater distance than the house's interior space should be capable of containing. Instead of finding the children in the house, he finds them at the end of a "dark doorless hallway which has appeared out of nowhere," in a wall at one end of the living room.
Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves starts out sounding like a typical haunted house horror story, but there is something much deeper and interesting going on. Danielewski is not satisfied with your run-of-the-mill grab-'em-stab-'em ghost tale. Instead he pits the psychology of the human mind against a house. Yes, a house, but one capable of transforming itself in the blink of an eye to be anything from the smallest closet to rooms thousands of feet wide or staircases miles deep.
Think of all the times you have ever been scared of the dark. Were you afraid there was something waiting for you in the lightless recesses of your own home? Something that you could not see, but were afraid might jump out at you? Something that, with every creak and bump, you became so scared senseless of, you could hardly move? But there's nothing in the dark that wasn't there in the light. Right? No bogeymen in waiting, no goblins or fanged wraiths to liberate bits of your tasty flesh. Being reasonable and hopefully logical adults we know -- short of a burglar or the restless spirit of Bob Vila -- there is nothing there. Just a trick of sound and mind. So what is there to really be scared of?
Danielewski finds plenty in this tale of a house, where nothing ever jumps at you from the shadows and no long-dead undead chase you down blood drenched corridors. From its jumbled up story to its often extreme typography (some pages are blank except for one or two words where others are a cacophony of backward and upside-down print), House of Leaves is a most unusual and innovative novel. Under the guise of being a lost manuscript written by an old blind recluse named Zampanò and found, cleaned up and published by a 20-something slacker, House of Leaves forgoes the regular route taken by most -- if not all -- novels.
At first it is a difficult and annoying read, riddled with extensive -- and at times unintelligible -- footnotes by editors, aforementioned slacker Johnny Truant and Zampanò himself. But about 40 pages in, I didn't want to stop. In fact, couldn't stop for fear that I would lose my already tenuous hold on the book's twisted reality. Zampanò's dry, almost emotionless treatise and Truant's drugged-out, often ill-worded rants couldn't be farther apart in both style and structure and Danielewski slips effortlessly between narratives and voices with jarring and head spinning effect.
The book initially comes across -- to use an unfair comparison -- as a Blair Witch Project type of story. As the book opens, Zampanò has died and Johnny finds the remains of this long-ago-written manuscript in the old man's apartment. It turns out to be an extensive dissertation of an unheard of documentary called The Navidson Record. In fact, the same documentary Will Navidson made about his house and its changing dimensions. But the finding and publishing of an old manuscript -- as compared to the finding and releasing of the student-made documentary in The Blair Witch Project -- is where the similarity ends. In the moving back and forth through the lives of its principal players, House of Leaves is often disorienting: for example, some footnotes literally run on for pages, forcing the reader to give up what is sometimes an interesting story line in order to follow another. This other usually being Johnny Truant's life of sex, drugs, debilitating nightmares and hallucinations: all apparently brought on by the reading of the old man's manuscript.
After the discovery of the hallway, what started as Navidson's documentary of his family turns into a single-minded obsession with the house and its incongruities, compelling him to explore deeper into the house's ever-shifting, lightless passages and spaces. Danielewski's writing of Zampanò's review comes off with an almost toneless, distant flippancy usually reserved for scientific papers. However, the narrative doesn't suffer from this treatment. On the contrary, it's quite engaging as Zampanò describes why, how and what is going on in Navidson's film. For example, Danielewski describes an unedited and uncut short film simply known as The Five and a Half Minute Hallway in this single sentence that somehow works against all odds:
In one continuous shot, Navidson, whom we never actually see, momentarily focuses on a doorway on the north wall of his living room before climbing outside of the house through a window to the east of that door, where he trips slightly in the flower bed, redirects the camera from the ground to the exterior white clapboard, then moves right, crawling back inside the house through a second window, this time to the west of that door, where we hear him grunt slightly as he knocks his head on the sill, eliciting light laughter from those in the room, presumably Karen, his brother Tom, and his friend Billy Reston -- though like Navidson, they too never appear on camera -- before finally returning us to the starting point, thus completely circling the doorway and so proving, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that insulation or siding is the only possible thing this doorway could lead to, which is when all laughter stops, as Navidson's hand appears in frame and pulls open the door, revealing a narrow black hallway at least ten feet long, prompting Navidson to re-investigate, once again leading us on another circumambulation of this strange passageway, climbing in and out of the windows, pointing the camera to where the hallway should extend but finding nothing more than his own backyard -- no ten foot protuberance, just rose bushes, a muddy dart gun, and the translucent summer air -- in essence an exercise in disbelief which despite his best intentions still takes Navidson back inside that impossible hallway, until as the camera begins to move closer, threatening this time to actually enter it, Karen snaps, "Don't you dare go in there again, Navy," to which Tom adds, "Yeah, not such a hot idea," thus arresting Navidson at the threshold, though he still puts his hand inside, finally retracting and inspecting it, as if by seeing alone there might be something more to feel, Reston wanting to know if his friend does sense something different, and Navidson providing the matter-of-fact answer which also serves as the conclusion, however abrupt, to this bizarre short: "It's freezing in there."
According to its press, House of Leaves originally started out as "... nothing more than a badly bundled heap of paper, parts of which would occasionally surface on the Internet," which was being passed around among a small assortment of devotees and has only just been brought together into a cohesive whole in book form. From the ominous dedication: "This is not for you," through to its gooseflesh-raising conclusion, Danielewski's first novel House of Leaves is frighteningly stunning, shockingly fresh and will forever change the way I view the dark. | May 2000
David Middleton is the art director of January Magazine. He hasn't been afraid of the dark since he built a glow-in-the-dark Frankenstein monster when he was 10 and then left it by his bed one night.