House of Leaves is the debut novel by American author Mark Z. Danielewski, published in March 2000 by Pantheon Books. A bestseller, it has been translated into a number of languages, and is followed by a companion piece, The Whalestoe Letters.

House of Leaves
First-edition cover
AuthorMark Z. Danielewski
CountryUnited States
GenreHorror, Satire, Postmodernism, Ergodic
PublisherPantheon, Random House
Publication date
March 7, 2000
Media typePrint (paperback and hardcover)
Pages709 (paperback)
Followed byThe Whalestoe Letters 

The novel is written as a work of epistolary metafiction focusing on a fictional documentary film titled the Navidson Record, presented as a story within a story discussed in a handwritten monograph recovered by the primary narrator, Johnny Truant. The narrative makes heavy use of multiperspectivity as Truant's footnotes chronicle his efforts to transcribe the manuscript, which itself reveals the Navidson Record's supposed narrative through transcriptions and analysis depicting a story of a family who discovers a larger-on-the-inside labyrinth in their house.

House of Leaves maintains an academic publishing format throughout with exhibits, appendices, and an index, as well as numerous footnotes including citations for nonexistent works, interjections from the narrator, and notes from the editors to whom he supposedly sent the work for publication. It is also distinguished by convoluted page layouts: some pages contain only a few words or lines of text, arranged to mirror the events in the story, often creating both an agoraphobic and a claustrophobic effect. At points, the book must be rotated to be read, making it a prime example of ergodic literature.[1][2]

The book is most often described as a horror story, though the author has also endorsed readers' interpretation of it as a love story.[3] House of Leaves has also been described as a "satire of academic criticism."[4]

Summary Edit

Danielewski in 2006

Rather than Danielewski, the title page of House of Leaves credits two men named Zampanò and Johnny Truant as its authors. In an introduction dated 1998, Truant claims to have found the book as an unfinished manuscript left by the recently deceased Zampanò, having never met the author in life. Truant, an apprentice at a Los Angeles tattoo parlor, decided to complete and submit the work for posthumous publication. The rest of the book is punctuated by footnotes by Truant, whether fact-checking, editorializing, translating, or interjecting seemingly irrelevant personal anecdotes. Truant's work is further supplemented by uncredited professional editors, who profess to have, in turn, never met Truant.

Zampanò's text claims that The Navidson Record, a documentary film directed by an acclaimed photojournalist named Will Navidson, became an American cultural phenomenon upon its theatrical release in 1993, generating volumes of multidisciplinary academic literature, as well as extensive media coverage in popular culture. In support, Zampanò cites or quotes articles, journals, symposia, books, magazines, TV programs, and interviews, many supposedly dedicated to this film. Zampanò discusses not only Navidson's filmmaking techniques, but also segues into topics such as photography, architecture, Biblical studies, and radiometric dating, often interspersing overwhelmingly esoteric tangents, several of which devolve into nonsensical, page-long lists of only superficially relevant items. Though many of the academic works Zampanò cites appear to analyze the Record purely as a work of horror fiction, Zampanò's writing remains adamant as to its authenticity.

Truant, however, debunks The Navidson Record as a wholesale fabrication, citing his own findings that the film does not exist; that Navidson is a fictionalization of the real-life photojournalist Kevin Carter; and that Zampanò outright invented numerous sources and quotes. Truant also determines that Zampanò copied secondary sources to hide his own inexpertise in various subjects. More paradoxically, Truant notes that Zampanò purports to authoritatively write about filmmaking and cinematography despite being blind. At the same time, Truant's own factual errors, limited knowledge, and open admission to adulterating Zampanò's work also throw his own reliability into question. The text is further marred by missing pages, missing footnotes, missing supplemental documents, and text accidentally or deliberately destroyed by Zampanò, Truant, or unknown causes.

An appendix provided by the editors includes a miscellany of writings from both Zampanò and Truant excluded from the body of the book, an obituary for Truant's birth father, and a series of letters later compiled in the Whalestoe Letters. A segment titled "Contrary Evidence", compiled by the editors themselves, instead contains what appears to be evidence of the Navidson Record's actual existence, with a series of artworks depicting segments or concepts from the film as well as what purports to be a single, bootleg frame from within the film itself.

The Navidson Record Edit

Flouting conventions of academic writing, Zampanò narrates the lives of the Navidson family during the events depicted in The Navidson Record, set in April 1990, including unfilmed events sourced from media and public records. The family are Will Navidson; his unmarried partner, Karen Green, a former fashion model; and their two children, Chad and Daisy.

The Navidson Record is described as the inadvertent product of an autobiographical documentary project: having recently moved into a new home in Virginia, the Navidsons installed cameras throughout the house to capture candid family moments. The family's daily life was soon upended by doors appearing in once-blank walls of their house, opening onto new rooms that extend, impossibly, beyond the house's outside dimensions.

Much of the film is described as footage from several ventures into a dark hallway which appears in the living room. Forbidden by Karen from entering, Navidson delegated exploration to a crew of professional explorers, who found, beyond the hallway, a maze-like complex containing an enormous spiral staircase which appears to descend endlessly. In the maze, they recorded footage of a multitude of corridors and rooms, completely unlit and featureless, with smooth ash-gray walls, floors, and ceilings. The maze is said to be silent save for the sound of a periodic low growl, which is never fully explained.

The explorations, already challenged by the maze's inhospitable, vast, and ever-shifting nature, finally led to disaster when one of the crew turned on the rest. After several ordeals, one explorer was killed and another rescued, but the house itself then transformed in a hostile fashion, killing Navidson's brother Tom and forcing the family to frantically escape.

Karen separated from Navidson, departing to New York City with their children. She turned to filmmaking herself to reconcile her relationship with Navidson, while also showing his footage to literary, artistic, and scientific authorities such as Stephen King, Stanley Kubrick, Douglas Hofstadter, Ken Burns, Harold Bloom, Camille Paglia, Hunter Thompson, Anne Rice, and Jacques Derrida. Navidson, still investigating the house, sought explanations from laboratory analysis, only to learn that samples taken from the maze are older than the Earth itself.

Ultimately, Navidson returned to the house alone, leaving only a seemingly incoherent letter for Karen. Despite ample preparation, Navidson became inextricably trapped in the maze. Navidson's camera captured himself attempting to read a book titled House of Leaves in total darkness; having lost all supplies, he resorted to burning the book page by page to provide light for reading.

Meanwhile, Karen followed Navidson, finding the house now normal and the hallway gone. She resumed living in the house, becoming confident that Navidson can still be found within. One day, the hallway reappeared to Karen, and she entered for the first time. She found Navidson emaciated and maimed by frostbite and injury, but they materialized together safely outside the house. The film concludes with Navidson and Karen marrying, and reuniting their family in Vermont.

Truant footnotes Edit

Parallel to the plot of the Record, Truant's footnotes document his descent into obsession, delusions, and paranoia as he compiles the manuscript. He recounts tales of sexual encounters, his lust for a tattooed dancer he calls Thumper, and his bar-hopping with his friend Lude. Truant also writes about his childhood living with an abusive foster father. Even as he grows increasingly unstable, Truant remains steadfast in his editorial work, neglecting all else.

Truant's story ends with chapter XXI. Entirely written by Truant, this chapter recounts the conclusion of his downward spiral after Lude's death. Truant invents two different accounts of positive turnarounds, only to disavow both. He then describes setting fire to the completed manuscript, and, after a struck-out passage in purple – the only such passage in the entire book – Truant tells an ambiguous story about a woman who loses her baby in childbirth. The remaining chapters conclude with no further text by Truant.

The Whalestoe Letters Edit

The Whalestoe Letters, a compilation of letters written by Truant's mother Pelafina during her committal at The Three Attic Whalestoe Institution, are published both as an appendix to House of Leaves and as a standalone book with additional content.

Though Pelafina's letters and Johnny's footnotes contain similar accounts of their past, their memories also differ greatly at times, due to both Pelafina's and Johnny's questionable mental states. Pelafina was placed in the mental institution after supposedly attempting to strangle Johnny, only to be stopped by her husband. She remained there after Johnny's father's death. Johnny claims that his mother meant him no harm and claimed to strangle him only to protect him from missing her. It is unclear, however, if Johnny's statements about the incident—or any of his other statements, for that matter—are factual.

Characters Edit

Johnny Truant Edit

Johnny Truant serves a dual role, as primary editor of Zampanò's academic study of The Navidson Record and protagonist as revealed through footnotes and appendices.

In the beginning of the book, Truant appears to be a normal, reasonably attractive young man who happens upon a trunk full of notes left behind by the now deceased Zampanò. As Truant begins to do the editing, however, he begins to lose the tenuous grip he has on reality, and his life begins to erode around him. He stops bathing, rarely eats, stops going to work, and distances himself from essentially everyone, all in pursuit of organizing the book into a finished work that, he hopes, will finally bring him peace.

Initially intrigued by Zampanò's isolative tendencies and surreal sense of reality, Johnny unknowingly sets himself up as a victim to the daunting task that awaits him. As he begins to organize Zampanò's manuscripts, his personal footnotes detail the deterioration of his own life with analogous references to alienation and insanity: once a trespasser to Zampanò's mad realm, Truant seems to become more comfortable in the environment as the story unfolds. He even has hallucinations that parallel those of Zampanò and members of the house search team when he senses "...something inhuman..." behind him (page 26).

Zampanò Edit

Though Truant attributes Zampanò as the author of The Navidson Record, Truant offers few concrete details about Zampanò's character or past, citing only information learned from his former acquaintances. These include neighbors and various students and social workers, exclusively female, who volunteered as readers for Zampanò's research. Unable to even determine Zampanò's full name, Truant only confirms that Zampanò became blind some time during the 1950s, and was approximately eighty years old at the time of his death. Truant also learns that Zampanò was erratic and capricious in his lifestyle and writing habits, diagnosing him with graphomania.

Danielewski made Zampanò blind as a reference to blind authors Homer, John Milton and Jorge Luis Borges.[5]

Pelafina H. Lièvre Edit

Pelafina, more commonly referred to as simply "P.", is Johnny's institutionalized mother who appears in the appendix to the text. Her story is more fully developed in The Whalestoe Letters.

Minor characters Edit

Lude: Johnny Truant's best friend, Lude is also the one that informs him of Zampanò's vacant apartment. Lude is a minor character, but some of his characteristics and actions are important in understanding Johnny. Lude assists Johnny many times in obtaining phone numbers of girls when they visit bars, clubs, and restaurants. Several times, Johnny mentions that he wishes he had not answered Lude's call late at night. Every time Johnny and Lude are together they seem to involve themselves in difficult situations. He is killed in a motorcycle accident near the end of the novel.

Thumper: A stripper who is a regular client of the tattoo parlour where Truant works. Although Johnny has encounters with many women, he remains fixated on Thumper throughout. Thumper's real name is eventually revealed to Johnny, but never to the reader.

The Navidson Record Edit

Will Navidson Edit

Will Navidson is described as having become a successful war photographer thanks to an early military career in war-torn regions, though haunted by his role as an impartial documentarist of war. Navidson is said to be a Pulitzer winner and recipient of prestigious arts grants, who has jeopardized his relationship with Karen due to years of prolonged absences while working overseas. As a conciliatory gesture, Navidson commits to prioritizing family over work by moving to the countryside. After promising Karen not to enter the hallway, he sends a crew in his stead to explore the maze, but privately chafes at this prohibition and breaks his word behind Karen's back.

Many citations to critics, scholars, and media coverage present Navidson as a well-known public figure, with his notoriety further compounded by the film's release; the extent of this public interest is such that academics are supposedly divided into three conflicting schools of thought interpreting his unexplained motivations for returning to the house.

Karen Green Edit

Karen Green is described as Navidson's partner of many years, and a former fashion model. Despite rearing two children together, Karen is said to have refused marriage to maintain her independence, particularly during Navidson's absences. Karen is seen to have kept a collection of letters from would-be suitors, and interviews with associates reveal that she committed at least one adulterous affair. Karen is also seen, after discovering Navidson's furtive exploration of the hallway, to have momentarily given in to one of the exploration crew's advances.

During the explorations, with Navidson lost in the maze for days, Karen is seen to have confronted this loss and is said to have overcome her dependency on him, finally making good on her ultimatum to depart with their children. Afterwards, while separated, Karen produced a short film focused on her relationship with Navidson, which led to her returning to Virginia in search of him.

Zampanò's text emphasizes Karen's psychological state well beyond the scope of the film. Zampanò cites research and medical records as evidence that Karen radically transformed her personality while in high school to become indifferent and aloof, and also that Karen suffered from chronic claustrophobia.

Tom Navidson Edit

Tom is described as Navidson's fraternal twin, the two brothers once being close but estranged for eight years for unknown reasons. A handyman by trade, Tom is said to be a contented underachiever with no fixed residence or attachments, as well as a recovering alcoholic. He is also described as comical and well-liked by all his acquaintances, in contrast to Navidson's cold professionalism. Much of this information is attributed to a supposed 900-page scholarly treatise analyzing the Navidson brothers as parallels to the Biblical brothers Esau and Jacob. Zampanò's text includes an entire chapter extending this analysis, but most of the text is destroyed without explanation.

Arriving at the house to help Navidson measure its dimensions, Tom is said to have improved the family's relationships and mood during his presence. Tom extended his stay to assist in the hallway explorations and subsequent rescue, in which he camped alone for days in the maze to maintain radio contact, built an improvised pulley to assist in the rescue, and, ultimately, saved the Navidsons' children from the house at the cost of his own life.

Billy Reston Edit

Billy Reston is described as an African-American engineering professor at the University of Virginia, rendered paraplegic by a construction site accident near Hyderabad. Reston is said to be a longtime friend of Navidson, who photographed the very moment of Reston's accident.

Intellectually engrossed by the anomalies of the house, Reston capably helped Navidson in measuring the house, organizing the explorations, and even rescuing the explorers, journeying through the maze himself despite his disability.

Holloway Roberts Edit

Holloway Roberts is described as an accomplished professional hunter and explorer, contacted by Reston to lead the explorations in Navidson's place. Roberts and Navidson were said to have developed a rivalry on first meeting, Roberts coveting Navidson's success and fame, and Navidson resenting relinquishing his discovery to another. Over several explorations, Roberts, accompanied by assistants Kirby "Wax" Hook and Jed Leeder, found the spiral staircase but could not reach the bottom after many hours.

In "Exploration #4", an expedition planned to last over a week, Roberts exhaustively provisioned his team, and also brought a gun. On their return after reaching the bottom of the staircase, they found their own caches of supplies vandalized by unknown causes. Believing an unseen creature roamed the maze, Roberts set out to hunt it, imperiling the team's return journey. When he accidentally wounded Hook, Roberts began hunting his own team to cover up his crime, ultimately killing Leeder.

After Navidson and Reston rescued Hook, Navidson found Roberts' camera, which recorded footage of his final moments: lost and alone, with no supplies, Roberts ranted about the unseen creature he believed to be stalking him. After Roberts committed suicide, the camera captured shadows abruptly extinguishing the light of Roberts' remaining flare to seemingly consume his body. The text cites extensive academic debate stirred by the mystery of this footage.

Format Edit

Danielewski wrote the book in longhand and revised it with a word processor. He then flew to Pantheon's New York headquarters to do the typesetting himself in QuarkXPress because he only trusted himself with the book's vision.[6]

The book contains copious footnotes, many of which contain footnotes themselves, including references to fictional books, films or articles.[7]

Colors Edit

House of Leaves includes frequent and seemingly systematic color changes. While Danielewski leaves much of the interpretation of the choice of colors up to the reader, several distinct patterns emerge upon closer examination.[8]

Notable examples include:

  • The word "house" is colored blue (gray for non-color editions of the book and light gray for red editions). In many places throughout the book, it is offset from the rest of the text in different directions at different times. Foreign-language equivalents of house, such as the German Haus and the French maison, are also blue. These colorizations even extend to the Random House publishing information on the book's copyright page and back cover.
  • In all colored editions, the word minotaur and all struckthrough passages are colored red.
  • The phrase "A Novel" on the book's cover appears in purple. The phrase "First Edition" on the copyright page appears in struckthrough purple. The phrase "what I'm remembering now" appears in struckthrough purple in Chapter XXI.

Typeface changes Edit

Throughout the book, various changes in typeface serve as a way for the reader to quickly determine which of its multiple narrators’ work they are currently following. In the book, there are four typefaces used by the four narrators. These are: Times New Roman (Zampanò), Courier (Johnny), Bookman (The Editors), and Dante (Johnny's mother).[9] (Additional font changes are used intermittently—Janson for film intertitles, Book Antiqua for a letter written by Navidson, and so on.)

Companion works Edit

The book was followed by a companion piece called The Whalestoe Letters, a series of letters written to the character Johnny Truant by his mother while she was confined in a mental institution. Some (but not all) of the letters are included in the second edition.

House of Leaves was accompanied by a companion piece (or vice versa), a full-length album called Haunted recorded by Danielewski's sister, Anne Danielewski, known professionally as Poe. The two works cross-pollinated heavily over the course of their creations, each inspiring the other in various ways. Poe's statement on the connection between the two works is that they are parallax views of the same story. House of Leaves refers to Poe and her songs several times, not only limited to her album Haunted, but Hello as well. One example occurs when the character Karen Green is interviewing various academics on their interpretations of the short film "Exploration #4"; she consults a "Poet," but there is a space between the "Poe" and the "t," suggesting that Poe at one point commented on the book. It may also be a reference to Edgar Allan Poe.

The album Haunted also draws heavily from the novel, featuring tracks called "House of Leaves", "Exploration B" and "5&½ Minute Hallway", and many less obvious references. The video for "Hey Pretty" also features Mark Danielewski reading from House of Leaves (pp. 88–89), and in House of Leaves, the band Liberty Bell's lyrics were also songs on Poe's album.

In 2017, Danielewski entered talks to adapt the novel into a TV series,[10][11] stating that if a deal was not made by February 2020, the project would be abandoned.[12] Ultimately, Danielewski published screenplays of three episodes online.[13] A sequel to the book, the screenplays both adapt the original story and extend it to the present day. Past sequences, depicted as filmed by a then-young filmmaker named Mélisande Avignon, contradict the book significantly: Zampanò's work, found by Truant, was not a manuscript but the actual film footage of The Navidson Record. This and Avignon's film are later seized, and public knowledge of them suppressed, by a "data disposal" company called Skiadyne. In the present, unknown forces steal both films from Skiadyne and return them to Avignon, leading to a high-stakes fight for control. The book House of Leaves, now academically studied as a work of fiction, becomes embroiled in a "fake fiction" scandal when Avignon publicizes its factual basis by leaking the films.

Reception Edit

Stephen Poole, writing in The Guardian, admired the book's parody of academia: "Danielewski...weaves around his brutally efficient and genuinely chilling story a delightful and often very funny satire of academic criticism."[14] Steven Moore, writing in The Washington Post, also praised the novel: "Danielewski's achievement lies in taking some staples of horror fiction – the haunted house, the mysterious manuscript that casts a spell on its hapless reader – and using his impressive erudition to recover the mythological and psychological origins of horror, and then enlisting the full array of avant-garde literary techniques to reinvigorate a genre long abandoned to hacks."[15] The Village Voice's Emily Barton was less impressed: "Danielewski’s bloated and bollixed first novel certainly attempts to pass itself off as an ambitious work; the question for each reader is if the payoff makes the effort of slogging through its endless posturing worthwhile."[16]

Legacy Edit

House of Leaves served as one of the prime inspirations for MyHouse.wad, a Doom II mod revolving around a house that is constantly shifting and changing in uncomfortable ways, making frequent use of non-Euclidean space. The map was released in March 2023.[17][18][19]

References Edit

  1. ^ Murphy, Cath (22 November 2013). "Book Brawl: House of Leaves vs. Night Film". LitReactor. Archived from the original on 9 May 2016. Retrieved 25 April 2016.
  2. ^ Corrigan, Marianne; Ogden, Ash (2013). "Explorations in the Ergodic". Alluvium. 2 (2). doi:10.7766/alluvium.v2.2.01. Archived from the original on 2016-05-09. Retrieved 2016-04-25.
  3. ^ Danielewski expands on this point in an interview: "I had one woman come up to me in a bookstore and say, 'You know, everyone told me it was a horror book, but when I finished it, I realized that it was a love story.' And she's absolutely right. In some ways, genre is a marketing tool." Wittmershaus, Eric (2000-05-06), "Profile: Mark Z. Danielewski", Flak Magazine, archived from the original on 2011-06-29, retrieved 2008-07-19
  4. ^ Poole, Steven (2000-07-15), "Gothic scholar", Guardian Unlimited, archived from the original on 2007-02-13, retrieved 2007-03-04
  5. ^ Borges: Influence and References: Mark Z. Danielewski. Retrieved March 15, 2007. Archived 2014-10-15 at the Wayback Machine
  6. ^ Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing, page 203.
  7. ^ One such footnote references Not True, Man: Mi Ata Beni? by Eta Ruccalla. Another references "All Accurate" by Nam Eurtton. Note that "Eta Ruccalla" is "All Accurate" backwards, and "Nam Eurtton" is "Not True, Man" backwards.[citation needed]
  8. ^ Wittmershaus, Eric (2000-05-06), "Review of House of Leaves", Flak Magazine, archived from the original on 2007-02-10, retrieved 2007-02-10
  9. ^ Hawthorne, Elise (March 14, 2010). "Font Functions in "House of Leaves"". Archived from the original on December 1, 2017. Retrieved November 23, 2017.
  10. ^ Wampler, Scott (July 9, 2018). "Mark Z. Danielewski Wrote The Pilot For A HOUSE OF LEAVES TV Series". Birth.Movies.Death. Archived from the original on December 11, 2018. Retrieved December 10, 2018.
  11. ^ Hughes, William (July 11, 2018). "Mark Z. Danielewski's script for a House Of Leaves TV pilot is just as bewildering and fascinating as the book". The A.V. Club. Archived from the original on December 11, 2018. Retrieved December 10, 2018.
  12. ^ @markdanielewski (23 September 2019). ""If a deal isn't in place by Feb..."" (Tweet) – via Twitter.
  13. ^ @markdanielewski (March 10, 2020). ""Where've you been? Read them now!"" (Tweet). Retrieved September 17, 2020 – via Twitter.
  14. ^ Poole, Steven (2000-07-15). "Guardian review: House of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski". the Guardian. Archived from the original on 2019-12-07. Retrieved 2019-12-07.
  15. ^ Moore, Steven (2000-04-09). "The Ash Tree Project". Washington Post. Archived from the original on 2019-09-11. Retrieved 2019-12-07.
  16. ^ Barton, Emily (2000-04-11). "Typographical Terror". The Village Voice. Archived from the original on 2019-12-08. Retrieved 2019-12-07.
  17. ^ Brown, Andy (2023-03-13). "Check out this haunted 'Doom' map inspired by 'House Of Leaves'". NME. Retrieved 2023-06-06.
  18. ^ Dominic Tarason (2023-03-20). "The Doom mod of the year just dropped in a mysterious forum post, and goes so hard we don't even want to spoil what comes next". PC Gamer. Retrieved 2023-06-06.
  19. ^ Dunn, Thom (2023-05-25). "Someone just created a House of Leaves-style DOOM mod". Boing Boing. Retrieved 2023-06-06.

Sources Edit

Further reading Edit

External links Edit