Thursday, December 3, 2015

House of Leaves Book Review

by The Wanderer

Author: Mark Z. Danielewski
Publisher: Pantheon
Genre: Science Fiction, Horror
Series: Standalone
Pages: 709

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House of Leaves, the debut novel by Mark Danielewski is bizarre.  If you’ve never heard anything about this book, the first thing I recommend you do is pick up a hard copy and flip through the pages.  What you’ll find inside is way out of the ordinary: textual font changes, textual color changes, upside down text, sideways text, an abundance of footnotes, a series of letters, and on and on.

With this crazed format you’re guaranteed a unique reading experience.  This book makes you feel like you’re solving a puzzle – literally – rather than reading a work of fiction.  As a work of fiction, aspects of the stories it tells are not wholly new, but the format they’re set in makes them feel that way.  At the end of the day I enjoyed House of Leaves immensely, but I could easily see this book being a turnoff for people who like a more conventional form of reading.  Nevertheless this book comes highly recommended.

The plot of this book is centered on a story within a story.  Font changes within the book indicate when a different person’s story is being told – this makes it a lot easier to navigate the book.
  • The outer portion of the story is focused on Johnny Truant, an L.A. based tattoo artist who has just moved into a new apartment. While moving in he discovers a manuscript by the previous tenant, who recently died, that is written about a documentary film called the Navidson Record.  As Johnny compiles the record and begins editing it he starts to begin questioning his sanity.
  • The inner portion of the story focuses on the contents of the Navidson Record which documents the Navidson family’s move into their new home.  Shortly after, strange doors and hallways begin to appear, and that’s when the family discovers the internal measurements of their home are larger than the external, a physical impossibility.

House of Leaves Analysis

In my reading experience I’ve found as far as horror and fear are concerned, novels seem to be the least likely story format to scare me.  I’ve read King, Lovecraft, Poe, etc. and although I enjoyed their writing, I never found myself overly frightened or paranoid when I read their books.

However, ever since I’ve read House of Leaves I have had to reevaluate that opinion.  This book is scary.  It’s not scary in the sense that it will make you jump, it’s not scary in that it details gory violence, it’s not scary with its depiction of monsters or other supernatural evil creatures.  This book is scary because it messes with your head … a lot.

Reading, House of Leaves home alone by yourself, late at night, in the dark will make your skin crawl.  Noises you hear while you’re reading it will start making you paranoid. You’ ll likely lose sleep over this book, and that’s not because you were up late at night reading it, although that might be the case, too.

What’s even better is the format of the book will often change to give the added feeling of fear the author wishes to convey.  For example when the book wants the reader to feel claustrophobic, the whole of the text on the page begins to decrease towards the center of the page.  Page after page this will go on for, it makes it feel like you’re crawling through an ever shrinking tunnel.

House of Leaves is more than just a horror story, though.  It tells a great love story about the troubled marriage between emotionally scarred photographer Will Navidson and his formerly unfaithful model wife Karen.  The footnotes, some of which lead to meaningless dead ends, makes mockery of academic criticism.  Johnny Truants self proclamations of being an unreliable narrator will have you wondering if any of this story is even real.

When House of Leaves isn’t scaring the crap out of you, or making you pour over footnotes, it will have you going to the bathroom so that you can read the backwards written text in the mirror, or it will have you solving puzzles.

For example, if you want to understand Johnny Truant better you can go to the back of the book and read some of the letters his mother wrote to him while she resided in a psychiatric ward.  One of the letters is written in a code where only the first letter of each word conveys the actual message his mother sent.  This means you the reader get to pull out a scrap piece of paper and write down the message – and then you will have to immediately throw away that message after you’ve written it down, because if anyone you knew personally saw that message in your handwriting they would think you are certifiably psychotic.

House of Leaves offers a lot more than just a crazed format: it blends satire, romance, and horror into a story within a story plot. This combination of genre and format is the only book I’ve read of its kind.  True, elements of the plot have been utilized before, but every story is like that.

Score: 9.8

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