House of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski is a brick of a book. Inside is text within text, typed and printed, inverted or spiraling, upside down and downside up. With the initial flick through the many pages comes the knowledge that one has to be committed to read it (perhaps in both senses of the word). The novel is about a house, or it’s about a movie, maybe it’s about the academic work documenting the movie about the house. Oh, and there are two narrators, Zampanò and Johnny Truant, who are mad as cheese. Have I put you off yet? Don’t be. House of Leaves is a great read!
Peter Beaumont, of the Observer, sums HoL up when he says the book is “at once a genuinely scary chiller, a satire on the business of criticism and a meditation on the way we read”. Danielewski’s use of footnotes, appendices, and citations from academic work already in existence, along with quotes from well-known people about the movie itself, reinforces the idea that both the movie and the house exist. This of course then leads the reader to question whether what they have in their hands is just fiction; in this case particularly, it’s a disturbing notion. In addition, the roles of the two narrators complement each other in a similar way as teacher and student. Zampanò’s scholarly yet wholly readable approach, which slowly uncovers more and more about the house, contrasts with the initial light relief of Truant’s viewpoint.
For me, the novel is a modern-day haunted house story, though there are no ghosts between the pages. It opens with the line: ‘This is not for you.’ A warning, and of course, a lure. Danielewski makes the impossible credible by diverting and exploring topics and details most novels would either ignore or lose in an edit. He drops in perfectly timed one-liners or even single words that are so exquisitely gut-twisting that all one can do is smile. The word, house, appears differently to all the other text in the book, like it’s been written on an old typewriter that’s had the arms for those five letters damaged. The effect is a little cheesy at first, but over time it turns into something quite unsettling.
The combination of all this, and much more, makes Danielewski’s debut novel a skilful experiment in unease. But maybe, as the book says, ‘this is not for you.’