If you are planning to read one scary book this year, make it House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewsky. I read it few months ago and I have been putting off writing this review because of the shattering effect it had on me. The book is a maze in which you get lost. When you read it, you forget that this is a work of fiction – it is almost like reading real manuscript, or a draft for a scholarly paper of some sort. Only the topic matter is disturbing and unnerving to say the least.
I don’t know if you ever experienced the phenomenon known as creepy pasta or one of it’s many iterations. It is a common past time on many discussion forums and image boards. The point of the exercise is to post short unnerving stories that are supposed to freak out the reader – especially one reading the message board alone at night. There are some fine example of the genre at the link I posted above. Most of these are very short and hit you with the creepy part right away. Some are longer and slow cooking. Great example of the slower paced creepy pasta is Ted the Caver. It is a creepy pasta disguised as a very crappy personal page of a caving enthusiast. It reads like a very personal account, and talks about a very disturbing and scary experience on a caving excursion.
All of these stories aim to scare you by presenting odd, intangible and frightening scenarios in common settings. Some do it better than others. If you keep reading them one after the other, you will eventually arrive at a point where you become slightly uncomfortable and unnerved.
House of Leaves will have a similar effect on you. This is possibly the best way I can explain the disturbing effects of this work. It’s like reading creepy pasta all night long. Only the stories are actually good, they all tie together to form a somewhat coherent narrative and you get to know and care about the characters that participate in them. But it gives you similar irrational creepy feeling, that makes you glance back every once in a while just to make sure nothing is behind you.
Comparing the book to creepy pasta is actually doing it’s disservice. The book is creepy, yes but it’ not pasta. It is a stunning and original work from begging to an end and it goes much deeper than these short stories ever could. From the moment you pick it up, you know it is going to be exceptional. The presentation of the book is as unusual as it’s contents. Here is a sample page from the book:
Danielewski goes beyond conventional storytelling and uses elements such as page layout, color, page inserts, images and elaborate footnotes to convey his message to the reader. It may seem messy and difficult to read, but it is not. You quickly get the hang of it, and whenever you get lost in the text, you feel as if this was intentional. As if the author wanted you to take a break and scan a page full of unrelated footnotes. Other times, the book is presenting you with multiple narratives running in parallel. There is the main story, and another seemingly unrelated one unfolding in the footnotes. How you read them is left entirely up to you. Do you finish the main plot first and then dive into the narrative or the other way around? Depending on which bits you read first, you may discover interesting “aha!” tidbits in the other part. It is masterfully done!
What is the book about? It’s a good question. In short, House of Leaves is a book, about an old manuscript about a movie that does not exist. Confusing? Let me explain.
In the preface, you find out that the following pages were put together and edited by a man who calls himself Johnny Truant and then sent to the publisher who printed them as is, with only few small changes indicated in footnotes. The actual contents were an old manuscript compiled by a very odd, eccentric and blind man known as Zampanò. Truant found the manuscript after the man’s death and it was a collection of notes scribbled on notebook paper, printed drafts, cutouts from newspapers and magazines, xerox copies, pictures and even stuff frantically scribbled on napkins. He became obsessed by putting it all together and unraveling the mystery that was within.
Zampanò’s manuscript reads almost like a well researched academic paper about a strange documentary produced by Pulitzer Prize photographer William Nadavidson. The famous photo reporter quits his job and decides to settle down and spend time with his family in a newly purchased house in the middle of quiet suburbia. He decides to record his transition into this new life by rigging the house with cameras. The “Nadavidson Record” was initially supposed to be a story a reckless adventurer learning anew how to be a real husband, and a real father and reconnecting with his family that hardly knows him anymore due to his crazy travel schedule. That is until William discovers that his house is actually larger on the inside than it is on the outside. And as if this was not enough, one day a strange door appears in his living room that opens into a dark corridor that seems to be stretching for miles. The documentary quickly changes focus as the Nadavidson is now trying to explore and document this strange phenomenon.
Zampanò analyzes the movie scene by scene, providing additional insight, details about Nadavidson’s career and other necessary background information. He supports his own arguments by multitude of citations from other academic papers written on the movie.
The catch is that despite his best efforts Johny Truant was unable to find any records of William Nadavidson, or his documentary. Zampanò’s meticulously researched opus magnum seems to be completely fictitious. The tightly woven web of references contains both real publications and fictitious ones – most of which are discovered and annotated by Truant. This makes the narrative no less fascinating – both to the reader, and to Truant who becomes completely consumed by editing and annotating Zampanò’s work.
The narrative unfolds on multiple layers. At the very bottom we have the disturbing story of William Nadavidson and his family. On top of that we have the mystery Zampanò – an unreliable narrator of Nadavidson’s story who seems to be very adept at weaving blatant lies and fiction with hard facts in a way that makes them hard to detect. His eccentricity, obsessions and strange life style shine through his writing.
On top of all of that we have another layer of narration in the form of Jhonny Truant’s footnotes. He studies Zampanò the same way the old man studied Nadavidson. He digs into his past, reconstructs his history, interviews people who he associated or worked with, uncovers his lies and verifies his facts. Not only that, but as the story progresses Truant becomes more and more disturbed by the contents of the story. For the sake of completeness he describes the effects the book is having on him – the frequent panic attacks, the sense of paranoia, frightening nightmares and etc.. You get the sense that Truant is being consumed by the same brand of madness that ended up killing Zampanò.
On top of that we have an un-named editor who occasionally gives us context that helps us to understand Johnny Truant himself. For example, to help us understand his psychological background he appends set of letters his mother sent to him from the mental institution where she was hospitalized with schizophrenia. That bit in itself is a fascinating read, completely tangential to the story – and yet adding to it in a subtle way.
These four layers are masterfully interwoven and all add to a very deeply disturbing, and intellectually complex story. Part of the reason for the strange presentation of the book is Danielewski’s attempt to draw a clear separation between Zampanò’s and Truant’s words. Both have very distinct writing styles (Zampanò is sophisticated and almost academic while Truant writes very conversationally, uses slang, curses and often uses run-on sentences when he gets excited) but each also has a distinct look and feel. Truant’s footnotes are always written in a mono-type (typewriter style) font, while Zampanò is always presented in standard variable width serif. Some pages have multiple footnotes – and you can tell at a glance which of them were originally made by Zampanò, which were added by Truant and which are attributed to the un-named editor that prepared Truant’s notes for publication.
Some parts of the manuscripts were crossed out or unreadable. Those were reproduced in red, strike-through font, or reconstructed from scratch. These parts only add new layers to the narrative. For example, why Zampanò go through all his notes and tried to erase every reference to the Minotaur of Crete and it’s famous maze? Why were several pages of the manuscript badly burned but not discarded? Why are some words consistently misspelled in particular way. Why are some words always written with a different colored font?
There is another layer to House of Leaves – it also works as a satire of literally criticism. Zampanò’s meticulous analysis is time and time again brutally deconstructed by Truant’s, fact based approach. Academic sophistication clashes with gritty down to earth language of the streets.
The more you dig into it, the more interesting stuff you find out. The book is constructed as a puzzle with missing pieces. You may never be able to see the big picture but the process of fitting the pieces together can be very entertaining.
House of Leaves is smart, thrilling and deeply disturbing on many layers. I can almost guarantee that it will make you uneasy by slowly smuggling in disturbing themes and images into your subconsciousness. Not only that – it will make you think, question it’s every line and search for deeper meanings on every page. Sometimes they are there, sometimes it’s just the author taking you for an intellectual ride and leaving you stranded at some abandoned dead end.
Zampanò is a liar, and Truant is going insane – so anything they say should be treated with a grain of salt. You know you are reading a work of fiction. But somehow these two negatives combine and form a positive that draws you in and makes you personally involved in the story. You almost want to take out your measuring tape and check whether or not your room is the same size on the inside as it is on the outside… But you are to scared that the results might not match to actually do it.
Seriously, go read it now. It is a bit more expensive than your average paperback novel due to the unusual presentation but it is worth every penny.