The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

Darkness There, and Nothing More (review: House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski

House of Leaves
Mark Z. Danielewski
Doubleday 2000

Have you ever become lost in a book? I don't mean that metaphorical lost, your consciousness dipping into imagined worlds and swimming around for a while, leaving your physical body drooling in a corner of a coffee shop. No, I mean actually, physically lost in the book. It happened to me recently, and it happened just so...

“Oh, have you ever read House of Leaves?”, she said. “It's ever-so-scary and you have to order the physical book, it just couldn't possibly work as an eBook”, she said. Thanks Miss Splendibird, thanks a whole bunch. Thus began my descent into the twisted work of Mark Danielewski's insanely ambitious, post-modern ghost/love story, House of Leaves. Since leaving Scotland for Asia I have been devouring eBooks by the virtual ton so the sheer size of House of Leaves came as something of a surprise. The hefty slab of paper was unwieldy, not to mention an eventual strain to hold up during late-night reading sessions, but it was the typesetting which first caught my eye. From the outset there was an array of differing fonts, the odd word appearing in colour, pages with only one or two words, others crammed with text scrawled haphazardly in every direction. What was this book I was holding?

House of Leaves begins conventionally enough with the tale of Johnny Truant, essentially our narrator (or one of many) for proceedings. Truant is a trainee tattooist, drifting from party to party, illicit substance to illicit substance, until his friend takes him to the apartment of his recently-deceased neighbour, Zampano. There they discover, hidden amongst an unsettling scene, an unfinished manuscript. It transpires that Zampano, a blind recluse, had been working on a critical analysis of a documentary known as The Navidson Record prior to his death and it is this fictional book and film which form the core of House of Leaves.

The Navidson Record itself follows photojournalist Will Navidson's account of the bizarre series of events which allegedly occurred at a building known only as the Navidson House, a country retreat in which Navidson and his wife and children had sought to repair their failing relationship. The house initially seems an idyllic haven until one day a door appears in a wall where previously there had been nothing. Behind the door lies a short space and a further door leading into their children’s room – so far, so strange. However Navidson notices something further amiss when he decides to measure the space and is led to the inescapable conclusion that the house is now larger inside than outside. Before long a further space appears, this time in the wall of the living room, leading directly into what should be their garden yet apparently just stretches endlessly into empty space.

Navidson, despite his wife's warnings, takes it upon himself to explore this hallway and begins to uncover the vast secrets which the house holds: impossible hallways; massive caverns; bottomless staircases and a threatening growl which frequently follows would-be explorers. It is the conflict between Navidson's quest for answers and his wife's fear of what the house contains which forms the backbone of the Navidson Record. Meanwhile, in the book, Zampano is describing and analysing events, referring endlessly to primary sources in the book's copious footnotes, most of which are entirely fictitious. Wrapped around this is Johnny's own narrative, describing how his sanity slowly deserts him as he becomes drawn into Zampano's work, much as happens to Navidson in the house. To say any more about the film, book or narration here would spoil things significantly but suffice to say that it starts strange and only keeps going further down the rabbit-hole.

The unique selling point of House of Leaves isn't the remarkably imaginative, twisted tale-within-a-tale-within-a-tale though. It's the way Danielewski tells it. As mentioned before the book is something of a typesetter's nightmare. Initially it seems that differing fonts are chosen for unique purposes – Johnny's narration, Zampano's manuscript and editor’s amendments are all clearly delineated. But then you notice that every mention of the word “house”, regardless of context, appears in blue. Moreover any discussion of minotaurs – labyrinths being central to all aspects of the book – are set in striking red. The effect soon becomes a tad unsettling, especially when Johnny's tale begins to go off the rails and the shabby-looking Courier (see what he did there?) font becomes all-too apt. (nowt wrong with a bit of the old Courier... ed.)

This is just the tip of the iceberg though. The sharp-eyed reader will notice a number of mis-spellings which are so frequently repeated that they can't be coincidence. Why does “pieces” so often appear as “pisces”? Why “heals” instead of “heels”? Then there are the footnotes, most often indicated by traditional numbering yet occasionally replaced with strange symbols whose meaning I didn't discover till the very end.

The big surprise is the physical layout of the text. During the course of Zampano's manuscript it transforms from regular typesetting to a bizarre and exceedingly discomfiting ride through the architecture of the house's labyrinthine passages. Words run up and down pages mirroring the steps, through tunnels to take the reader through the claustrophobic passages and even around the borders of the pages on the spiral staircase, requiring the book to be rotated while read. By this point my brain was fried and I forgot which way up the book was and which direction the pages turned. Lost in a book.

The effect is even more chaotic in the section entitled The Whalestoe Letters, a series of missives to Johnny from his mother who is languishing in a mental institution. Her descent into the depths of madness is apparent from the layout as well as the content, at one point hiding a message within a message within a message, mirroring the layout of the book as a whole. Such shenanigans could be viewed as excessive or pointless by some but for myself it thoroughly trapped me in the text, wrapping the imagined world around me until there was no escape.

I won't dwell on Danielewski's influences here except to say that fans of Jorge Luis Borges will find a great deal for them to chew on.  In fact, at times it seems that House of Leaves is intent on eschewing the entire notion of influence, instead simply dissecting and discarding any outside voices as the house and therefore the book itself carves out its own space. This kind of post-modernism usually grates on me (I'll be honest here, the mere mention of post-modernism is usually enough to send me into a rage) but Danielewski manages to pull it off with such panache and hides it behind such horror that I have to let him off the hook.

In the end House of Leaves can be read on a number of levels. Some say it's a ghost story, some preferring to read between the lines and label it a love story. Some focus on the layout, others on the twists and turns in the multi-layered story itself. Some will endlessly dissect the factual and fictitious references while yet others take it purely at face value. I'll admit that I tend towards the latter, taking delighted in a well-crafted and original horror story coupled with a remarkable physical artefact which enhances the journey. The point is that there's something for readers of all stripes to get their teeth into as long as they are willing to make the effort.

Cannonball Jones reviewed this book largely because Splendibird was too scared to finish it and PolkaDot Steph was concerned that the story might crawl out of the book and up her nose while she was sleeping.  Which is not unreasonable. Available Now.


Allison said…
I'm so intrigued by this one...but I've heard a lot of negative things about it that have succeeded in scaring me off thus far. Maybe I need to change my mind...
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