House of Leaves – A Maze of Our Own Making

I am not equipped to write this review. Honestly, I’m not sure if anyone would be. I mean maybe if I had an English degree and an understanding of western literature beyond high school, I might be more confident, but we work with what we have. My desire to read House of Leaves started a few years ago, back when book club was still a thing we got together for, and House of Leaves popped up when I searched for a horror book to suggest. The premise intrigued me: a house full of secrets that is larger on the inside than the outside. A tale about the deep siren’s call of obsession that entwines the reader’s need for answers with the protagonists’. Fortunately, for the club, and my budding reading habits, this book was vetoed. It lingered in the back of my mind for years until right before COVID hit the U.S. I saw a single copy of it in the bookstore and the longing to read it surged in my chest. Of course I purchased it, and then when I opened it, I saw the madness within and shelved it. I had too many spring books to review, sothis had to wait a few more months. October rolled around and ‘twas the season, so I cracked this tome open and ventured into the unknown.

For those who don’t know, House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski, is a modern horror/surrealist piece of literature that defies any real description. It’s a story several times removed from the story featured in the synopsis. Essentially, the book is a documentary about a family that buys a haunted house and explores its dark depths. It’s also the story of a blind man’s attempt to explain the documentary as it is, offering symbolic meaning and providing psychoanalysis through a series of footnotes that cover western mythology as well as critical reception of the film. This is then commentated on by yet another man, who happens upon the manuscript after said blind man dies, and he discovers it while rummaging through the dead man’s apartment while drunk. It’s part textbook, part story, part diary, and all nightmare. It’s truly a monster of a book, and we haven’t even touched the formatting of the different sections that heighten the tension.

I can hear you now, “what the fuck are you on, trying to talk about this weird book?” Honestly, I don’t even know why I’m writing this. I feel uncomfortable even recommending this book to anyone who isn’t already interested. In some ways I am driven by my obsession to talk about it so that I may find the end of the maze internally. There is something special about this book, and it gnawed at me until the very last page. I want others to experience it for themselves. I found it nearly impossible to put down, and I wouldn’t have except for the fact that I had to sleep, work to make a living, and eat food so I could continue to read this book. It wormed its way into my brain, feeding on the ends of my neurons that weren’t dedicated to it. The obsession took hold of me like a rabid dog burying a bone. I felt connected to the book in a way I hadn’t really felt connected to a piece of fiction before. I needed to know every little detail. I wanted to satiate my curiosity while applauding my own intelligence for catching on. I wanted to be swept away, and my to be breath taken from my lungs when major revelations occurred. I yearned to know every detail of these people’s lives, know how they ticked, and understand why they were the way they were. And the book just fed my desires, making me think of my own experience in relation to Johnny Truant, the man who finds the manuscript. I craved to know how Johnny related to the Navidsons, the family who bought this home and set upon themselves the task of discovering its mysteries.

The formatting felt like a drug. I turned the book upside down, diagonal, sideways. I read pages while standing in front of a mirror. I read backwards through pages I had already read forwards. There was no challenge presented by the changing format I did not meet. I had to know everything. My boat had left the docks and I let the wind take me wherever it was blowing. The initial fear I felt when I gazed upon the complex maze of letters and words was replaced with the joy of exploration. I felt an intense desire to pick up every morsel left by the conglomerate of authors, worried that missing one little piece would degrade the effort put in. The changing landscape of the text only fueled this passion, giving the book a geography that is so rarely seen. The little cracks and crevices provided so many rewards, so many pats on the back, it was as addicting as it was fulfilling.

Until it wasn’t. There was a moment in the book where my hunger became an emptiness. I knew I needed to fill it, but the story was over. It just ended. The characters, the Navidsons, Johnny, the women Johnny talked to, all their lives just go on. There are no conventional conclusions to their story. There were one hundred fifty pages of appendices, full of letters, photographs, and scrap art. I just had to digest it all, and yet the rewards were missing. I read four hundred pages of the six hundred and fifty pages in a single sitting, and I felt dead. I spent roughly forty five minutes translating a code in one of the end letters. Once the book was over I just sat there. I asked myself, was it me? Did the book just lose its magic? Was I not getting it? Then I remembered one of the first pages of the book, in an iconic typewriter font, somewhat off center, the phrase This is not for you appears. And it all started to come together for me in a brilliant understanding and while that emptiness brought on by the book never really left me, I felt satisfied.

Again, I ask myself, and probably you too, dear reader, why do I bring up this book? Why am I giving you an outline of my experience? Describing my feeling about a book that defies explanation, or tidy description. A book that requires a larger than healthy level of effort, and a frankly ludicrous amount of buy in mentally. Something that isn’t quite fantasy, and not really science fiction either, and barely horror? Those words echo in my mind This is not for you, as I try to come up with a reason. This is not for you, This is not for you, This is not for you. And, maybe therein lies the answer.

Rating: House of LeavesThis is for me./10


4 thoughts on “House of Leaves – A Maze of Our Own Making

    1. Then I did my job! Kidding. The best way to consider it is, if you are at all curious, it’s worth a shot. You’ll learn very quickly if you want spend the effort.

  1. I have just read House of Leaves recently, and everything you said about it rings true for me, couldn’t have written a better review myself. As a suggestion, I don’t know whether you know this book or not, but if you want a similarly intoxicating and disorienting experience, Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov might work for you.

    1. I’m glad it spoke to you. And I have definitely heard of it, and have been curious about it since it’s appearance in Bladerunner 2049, but to hear it’s a similar experience definitely bumps it up. Thanks for the recommendation!

Leave a Reply