Gothic romanticism is among the most recognizable genres of storytelling. The supernatural, tales of ghosts and unknowable forces, matters of life and death, and the spaces between. Be it classical literature or modern, these themes are commonplace. As a result, it can be hard not to see gothic romanticism as played out. House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski defies this notion, redefining this well-worn genre with a mind-bending dose of the contemporary. It is gritty, dark, and unlike anything I have ever read.
The plot begins with a sentence alone on a blank page, written as a direct warning to the reader: This is not for you. For most readers, I would have to sadly agree. House of Leaves is confusing and defined by tangents, as much a maze as the building it depicts. In short, for those who dislike how it is written and who don't want to follow all the paths it leads you down, it is incredibly hard to read, and even harder to enjoy. However, for those who stick with it, the book delivers.
The story is splintered between two perspectives, both third parties writing about a third party. You don’t get a direct view of the plot. You are watching through the eyes of one who has read the story before, a story written as an essay about another story. This multilayered disconnect, being distant from the actual action of the story, seems like it would distance the reader too far from the plot. The reality, however, is that this draws us closer, as we aren’t in the plot. We’re in the same boat as everyone else in the story; looking in, unable to entirely understand what we are seeing.
Our protagonist, at least on the outer layer of House of Leaves, is no role model. Johnny, or Hoss as he is called by his friends, is an addict, an arguably horrible human being, and a ruined man. He has suffered and finds himself more than content to hide his pain in a bottle or bowl. We don’t watch him rise from this state when he happens upon the apartment of a dead, blind old man. He does not grow or heal when he finds an essay about a film that never existed, hidden away in a trunk of dark wood. We watch him descend as he obsessively reads and retells the tale of the Navidson Record, and as the darkness that those scrawled pages hold seeps out into his own life and mind.
The Navidson Record is the inner and primary story. This too, however, has some level of disconnect, despite being the closest we get to the core of House of Leaves. The Navidson Record is a film, made by a father unsuspecting of the horror his home videos would capture. Following a family of four’s move into an old Virginia home, it is twisted in a way that is unlike anything before it. The house is malignant, subtle in its defiance of its new occupants at first before lashing out in absolute hatred. William Navidson doesn’t know what he’s found at first. The first chapters serve to establish our characters and lure us in, which is exactly when a discrepancy is discovered: the house is 5/16 of an inch bigger on the inside. Then the door appears, wedged on an outer wall of the house. It leads to the house’s true form, filled with hallways and rooms impossible in size, freezing cold, and absolutely dark. Navidson is entranced by this darkness that horrifies his family, and his sentiment only grows until it consumes him.
Both Johnny and Navidson, our main characters, are broken men, hardened by the horrors they have witnessed in their pasts. They are united, despite their distance, by their deteriorating mental health at the sight of the house, whether from behind a page or in person. This fragmentation is present even in the page layouts, as font sizes shrink, text runs away to hide in the corners of the page, or letters are used to form images. We are watching these two go insane.
*A Gallery of Some of House of Leaves' stranger page layouts, image found on the Cornerfolds Book Blog
It is this odd perspective that Danielweski chooses for his story that makes it so fascinating. It is a twisted, writhing thing, and yet the separate stories within the book don’t distract or subtract from one another; they work together to expand the reach and power of the house’s horror. Because we are separated from the story, we are in the exact same boat as the two telling the story, who have been driven mad by this tale. This is all through a uniting theme, seen in Navidson’s corridors, the old man’s blindness, and Johnny’s mind - darkness.
The dark has captured human imagination and fear for countless generations. It is the unknown made physical, and that which is unknown is universally disturbing. Many have written about darkness before, but no work that I have read has succeeded in giving it depth as Danielweski has. It is captivating, sparking as much horror and obsession in the reader as it does in the characters.
*Interior of book cover
The finite space that holds this infinite malice is just as fascinating. The contorting walls and malignant floor of the house of Ash Tree Lane actively reject and attack its occupants, destroying that which doesn’t belong without remorse. The idea of a haunted house haunted by itself is nothing new. One notable early example of this is The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, written in 1959 and reworked into numerous film adaptations. The house in this novel also contorts and terrifies and captivates. This house, however, is finite. Though its rooms move and warp, they do not expand beyond sight as those in the house on Ash Tree Lane do. Its menace is one of confusion, whereas Danielweski’s house is one of a lurking threat, active in its hatred of its occupants.
Weeks after reading House of Leaves, I am still left with those dark corridors and unnavigable rooms plastered to the back of my mind. I have not seen this darkness, not touched those cold walls, but in a sense, I have, long before I came across them in this book. In many ways, we all have. Danielewski's magnum opus is a book about one of our deepest fears seeping out of our media. Because of all that it is, it lingers long after the final page is done. Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves is a book that deserves to be read.