Hallowe’en Reads: House of Leaves

I love Hallowe’en, always have since I was a child. I loved the sense that the barrier between our reality and a mysterious, dangerous plane of existence might be opened for one night a year, and anything could happen. It was terrifying and exciting at the same time. And though now I don’t believe in the supernatural, I still love horror films and stories. So between now and Hallowe’en, I’ll share my thoughts on some of my favourite horror fiction.

I’ll start with House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski (2000). If you were to pick this up in a bookshop, you might be put off by it. Here are some pictures of selected pages:

It can be offputting: playing around with typesetting, multiple narrators, footnotes that go on for pages, different text colours, crossed-out sections: it might appear too post-modern for some. That was certainly my impression. I noticed people talking about it a lot online, and was curious, but I felt that the post-modern elements would detract from the horror. Horror is about a direct emotional response, but I felt that the post-modern aspect of the book would be too distancing for it to be effectively frightening.

Still, I’d occasionally go to Amazon to find it, and then immediately be put off by the price. Be warned: this book can be very expensive, probably mainly due to the cost of the different coloured inks, and many photographs. Maybe the different fonts too (I’ve no idea if that makes a book more expensive). So then I’d forget about it for another while. But one day I was looking at books in a charity shop, just casually scanning the shelves, when the author’s name stood out. My heart began to race. It couldn’t be here! This obscure (in charity-shop book section terms), expensive book: it couldn’t be! And surely it can’t be as cheap as all these others though… yes, only €3! I couldn’t believe my luck. I checked its condition: perfect. And it was only a few weeks to Hallowe’en: the perfect time to read it! Someone must have bought it on a whim or got it as a present, started into it, and soon after said Nope! and gave it to the charity shop. I assume so, because I don’t think it’s the kind of book you’d want to give away after finishing it.

I started reading it that evening. I think finding it in such an unexpected way really added to the spookiness of it, and I got really absorbed into it straight away. I’ll try to summarise it as simply as possible. The main body of the book is a manuscript supposedly written by an academic named Zampanò. This concerns a fictional documentary called The Navidson Tapes, which recount the strange experiences of Will Navidson, a photographer, and his family as they move into a old house in southeastern Virginia. This text features footnotes by Zampanò, but also by Johnny Truant, a character we meet at the beginning of the story. He’s introduced to Zampanò’s manuscript by a friend and begins reading it. As well as footnotes, there are long sections from Truant’s point of view between chapters of Zampanò’s manuscript. And to add even another layer, there are occasional notes by fictional editors on Truant’s writing, and numerous appendices at the end. It’s a complex, multi-layered book, but it never really gets confusing, and I think those layers add to the sense of uncertainty in the book.

I won’t go into too much detail about what happens in the house, but suffice it say that it’s not clichéd haunted-house stuff. The weirdness first becomes apparent to us when we find out that one day a long hallway appeared in a room which had never been there before. Even stranger, the door to the hallway is in an exterior wall, so the new hallway should expand out into the garden, but the exterior of the house remains unchanged. Danielewski really upends our sense of spatial orientation and consistency in simple yet very creepy ways. Many of the scariest sections of the book are simply characters exploring dark, empty corridors, but the characters are so well-rounded, and compound their more immediate fears with their personal anxieties that you really care about them. It was a surprisingly emotional book for me. The book is also really effective at subtly suggesting that both Zampanò and Truant’s sanity were slowly but increasingly affected by their association with The Navidson Tapes. And who knows: perhaps you’ll feel the same, as the next layer of this lattice of narratives…

The book’s probably not for everyone. Danielewski really captures the tone of academic writing in Zampanò’s manuscript (simultaneously precise and pretentious: never forgoing a French phrase when an English one would suffice). Even if you’re used to texts like that from university, it might feel too much like studying at times. It’s also not a book for those who like their mysteries explained in the end. Many aspects of the book (What’s making that noise? Why is every instance of the word house in blue?) are left ambiguous or completely unexplained. Personally though, that just adds to the experience. It leaves us feeling just as powerless, confused, and dwarfed by inexplicable forces as the characters are.

If you’re looking for something truly creepy, which also drags you into a fully-realised world which will have you looking behind your shoulder and questioning every noise your house makes, then I recommend House of Leaves. I’m also still not convinced that I found it by chance in that charity shop. It felt like it wanted to be found… Wait, is that someone knocking at the door?

(Editor’s note: the blog entry ends abruptly here.)

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