Book Review : House of Leaves

Andrew Stephens, Monday the 10th of October, 2011 in Books, Fantasy

House of Leaves This post was automatically imported from my old sandfly.net.nz blog. It may look a little weird since it was not originally written for this format. By Mark Z. Danielewski

A young man named Johnny comes into possession of a large cache of papers written (or dictated) by a elderly, blind and recently deceased man. The papers make up a nearly complete book, and Johnny devotes his live to putting it all in order. The book the old man was writing is an analysis of a film, The Navidson Record, a documentary about the strange goings on in a family home that is much, much bigger on the inside than its exterior walls can possibly encompass.

Most of the text of House of Leaves is from the old man describing the film (which, being blind, he has never seen) and adding his ridiculously footnoted academic criticism over the top. Despite being fascinated, Johnny, as self appointed editor, feels free to add his own rather more sarcastic and down-to-earth commentary on the plot, as well as long passages documenting events in his own life. Compiling the old man's notes is taking a toil on Johnny's mental state, and his additions get more disjointed and alarming.

House of Leaves is a hard book to pin down. The story within a story that The Navidson Record supposedly tells is a fairly standard horror tale of a spooky house, but it is filtered through at least 3 unreliable narrators before we find out anything. Johnny points out that many of the old man's references are completely made up, and the film possibly never existed. But Johnny himself admits to the reader that he is an expert liar and occasionally adjusts the text. The appendix is filled with "supporting documents" that obscure things every further.

The format of the book itself is worked into the story. Like the house, the interior of the book is slightly too large for the cover. During the more weird passages the flow of text breaks up as paragraphs flow at weird angles or jump across pages at speed. Parts of the text are struck out (Johnny explains that the old man deliberately blotted out some pages with ink) leaving us to guess at the contents.

Parts of the book are incredibly funny, excellently parodying dry academic criticism. The plot of The Navidson Record itself is suitably creepy. Johnny's tale of woe is a very dated I-take-drugs-and-fuck-a-lot-of-strippers-but-I-really-don't-enjoy-it first-person narrative that just screams 90s fiction, but the fact that he is probably lying to the reader about much of it makes it a little more interesting. If nothing else, House of Leaves adds a little mystery into what can be a very obvious genre.

Recommended, I think