House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski

In the beginning we meet Johnny, who happens upon a strange manuscript for a book called The Navidson Record. The manuscript is about a documentary centered around a family’s dealings with an unusual house. Not only can Johnny not find any trace of this documentary, the family, or a soul who knows anything about it, the author of the book, “Zampano,” is also a mystery. 

It’s clear from the forward that Johnny has been greatly affected by the unpublished book, and paranoia has taken over his life. After the forward, the rest of House of Leaves is the manuscript, with written notes from Johnny throughout. 

I’ve been hearing about this book for a few years now and always in a positive light, especially in the scary department. Spooky houses are one of my favorite subgenres of horror. Even when the story is so-so, I’ll probably feel some enjoyment at least.

All of this to say that I’m really bummed that I didn’t love this book. 

The level of work that Danielewski put into House of Leaves is to be commended, and I can understand the cult following it has. The core story about the house of Ash Tree Lane and its effects on the Navidson family were by far the best part. Despite some hindrances (more on that later), the author was able to build some great tension throughout, especially at the crucial moments.

Where things started to go wrong for me was the ‘story-within-a-story’. I thought Johnny’s intro was great and gave some needed mystery, but it really should’ve ended there. Or maybe he just gives brief notes throughout the book and then an epilogue. Instead, what the reader got was notes that were 2-3 pages long about (usually once per chapter) about what Johnny was up to and how he’s being affected by Zampano’s book. I just didn’t find it interesting and after awhile I started to skip his sections. I came back in the last couple of chapters and, frankly, I didn’t miss much. 

The biggest ‘make-or-break’ I imagine is the style and formatting of the book. Along with narration experimentation (say that three times fast) the look is a notable part of the House of Leaves experience. Some examples:

While this looks interesting, trying to read a book written by a madman is hard and, other than frustration and irritation, didn’t add much for me. It wasn’t that it was complex, it just got in the way of the story I was trying to enjoy. Alright, I should give some credit where it is due, there was one sequence where the text manipulation genuinely helped build tension, but a majority was used just for looks. 

Sidenote: I know someone out there is yelling “YOU DON’T GET IT”. I understand the structure of the book is a maze, like the house, but I think there are examples of both how this works and doesn’t throughout. 

There were some other strong choices made that didn’t work for me either. Some sections would be working so well and building the tension, and then a chapter about “echoes” or some other nonsense would come in and kill it, and I had a difficult time getting back on track. (Seriously, I almost fell asleep during that section.) I understand that Zampano’s Navidson Record is supposed to be a scholarly work (at least in Zampano’s eyes) but it has to be entertaining or at least relevant. 

While I applaud the author for trying new things and making bold choices I wish it supported the main story more, instead of constantly getting in the way and disrupting the flow.

For those who love House of Leaves, I hope you understand where I’m coming from, but maybe I should have heeded the book’s epigraph: 

“This is not for you.”

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