So I said, All right, book, I’ll play your game. I saved House of Leaves for when I was alone in my apartment between the hours of 10pm and 3am. I don’t think anyone would argue with me if I say that’s the ideal context for reading this book. And you know what? That made it pretty fun.
But is it scary? Disturbing is more the word; it’s not visceral. But if you find the image of “the long dark hallway after midnight” to be evocative of dread, this book should affect you.
I could sum it up like this: sometimes to hear a snarling monster is at your door isn’t as unnerving as when you go to discover there’s nothing there.
The other thing that House of Leaves is known for is for its completely off-the-wall postmodernist approach to storytelling. What you’re reading is a dead character’s lengthy dissertation on a mysterious Blair-Witch-like set of tapes (“The Navidson Record”) that constitutes the central horror story. But the writer (Zampano) is clearly losing his mind as the book progresses, and so is Johnny Truant, a twenty-something drifter who found Zampano’s text and has also added on his own personal footnotes… and who is also spiraling into a Lovecraftian madness.
This all adds up to something fellow blogger Nate at TheNinthDragonKing calls, “the biggest structural temper tantrum ever written.”
I’ve read po-mo structurefuck novels (yep, that’s what I call them) before and what’s common among them, good and bad, is that the author can be distractingly present throughout the novel, to a sort of “look-what-I-can-do” effect. But House of Leaves is different. It contains such cacophony of voices barking in from everywhere, the author doesn’t seem to show up in the din. I don’t know who Mark Z. Danielewski is. I don’t know where to find him in this book.
Nate also describes the book as “a big, bold F.U.C.K.Y.O.U.” to Danielewski’s professors. I can kind of see that. To me, House of Leaves is reactive in another way: it’s an academic parody.
Here you have what could have been a plain ol’ horror story (and a pretty good one, still), but by riddling it with character analysis, archetypal references, and all sorts of other philosophical wankery from critics both real and imagined, you show what happens to a text when it falls into the hands of “experts.”
Film critics comment on Will Navidson’s camerawork. Psychologists poke and prod the characters’ very facial expressions to infer their mental states. One literature professor presents the cavernous house as a vaginal symbol to explain why the men are suicidally compelled to explore it.
As you might imagine, some of the commentary is genuinely illuminating, some of it is goofy bullshit, and the rest of it lies somewhere in between. But the fact that there’s just so much of it crowding the story seems, in the big picture, to be a kind of research satire.
Ironic Fact: The book is so thoroughly self-analyzed that you can’t analyze it yourself without feeling very self-conscious and maybe a little silly.
Is House of Leaves the real deal? Yes and no. It’s uneven. It gets unnecessarily tiresome in places and some of its type-tricks are very “so what?” But I’m still convinced that there’s a crazy genius behind it all. Definitely worth a look for something completely different.
House of Leaves works so long as you feel like the obsessor at the end of a chain of obsessors.