On the surface, House of Leaves is three different voices telling tales springing from the same story. It’s the dark tale of a family moving into in a new home when they find it larger on the inside than on the outside. Oh yeah, and it’s growing. One version is a documentary that the photo journalist patriarch of the family made called “The Navidson record”. The film depicts events occurring during their move, along with resulting horrors they discover. Another version of the story is written on random scraps of paper, index cards and typed out by the hands of an old blind man’s assistants in an attempt to describe the film. Finally, we read from the diary of a young junkie who finds an abandoned crate full of the blind man’s notes in an empty apartment. Filled with fantastic visual imagery and “found footage”, the story describing the Navidson Record is in turns challenging, intensely literary and nightmare inducing.
The first time I noticed the book, Barnes & Noble had it tucked away, deep on a shelf beneath a shadowy stairwell. I read the back jacket of the oversized paperback. Though I found it interesting, we were late for a movie and had to rush to get decent seats. Throughout the next few days, the concept of the book looped on play back in my head. Something about the idea resonated with me and without having read a word, I noticed the hallways of our small apartment stretching long into the darkness of night. On my next visit, I planned to buy it but the bookshelf was no longer there. (Perhaps I should have recognized the foreboding irony at that point.) Still ignorant of major parts of the storyline, I asked the bloodshot eyed, skunk stinking employee for help and purchased the first of what would eventually end up being five copies.
Yeah. You read that right. I’ve since bought the book five times. One that I gave to a friend, two loaned out and never returned, one dog eared copy that I read once every year and finally, the full color, hard bound version that Danielewski signed for me at a reading in 2006. Am I a fanatic? Probably. What can I say? The book changed my life.
first reading. Right now, my copy of the book is burdened with post-it notes
marking pages like a porcupine is stacked with piercing quills. At every turn of the page I find another horror that makes me want to leave the lights on after bed time with covers tucked over my sleepless head.
Danielewski invents fresh ways of conjuring demons from the recesses of instinct. The impenetrable blackness swallowing deep into the mysterious labyrinth that appears where it should by all logical explanation, not be. The savage and guttural growling that stalks us as we explore faceless hallways and ominous arches disorienting us further into the nowhere.
The book itself devolves into a physical manifestation of the labyrinth, with multiple storylines running at the same time on the pages in upside down or even backwards text. Certain passages can only be read through a “hole” on the other side of the page, cryptic photographs and cartoons depicting characters and locations from the story. It may be confusing and impudent, but HoL is never once boring.
An entire chapter consists of a thesis on the physics of sound before revealing in the last few words that there is a basic, terrifyingly primal reason behind the science, mythology and textbook quotations:
“The terrifying implication of their children’s shouts is now impossible to miss. No room in the house exceeds a length of twenty-five feet, let alone fifty feet, let alone fifty-six and a half feet, and yet Chad and Daisy’s voices are echoing, each call responding with an entirely separate answer.
In the living room, Navidson discovers the ehoes emanating from a dark doorless hallway which has appeared out of nowhere in the west wall. Without hesitating, Navidson plunges in after them. Unfortunately the living room Hi 8 cannot follow him nor for that matter can Karen. She freezes on the threshold, unable to push herself into the darkness toward the faint flicker of light within. Fortunately, she does not have to wait too long. Navidson soon reappears with Chad and Daisy in each arm, both of them still clutching a homemade candle, their faces lit like sprites on a winter’s eve.”
I sat on a plane next to my new bride when I first read this passage. Whether it was from the small confines of the pressurized cabin or the instinctual protectiveness I felt from our recently discovered pregnancy, the concept of mysteriously growing spaces that swallow children swaddled me in lumpy gooseflesh.
Regretfully, I told my wife about the happenings in the Navidson Record.
We landed after 2:00AM in a small, unpopulated, pitch dark area. The only illumination was provided by the headlights of our rental car. I drove slowly on the winding road unable to see much in front of us other than the next curve as it veered right before our tires. A sign came into view before the next turn reading “Kihe 5 Miles”. Good. We weren’t too far. After five minutes another sign appeared. “Kihe 6 Miles.”
“The island is growing!” My wife prodded me with her elbow.
“No it’s not! Shut up!” My white knuckles squeezed the steering wheel nearly cracking it from the dashboard. Eventually we did arrive safely. We unpacked our bags and went to bed.
What do you get when you cross old buildings and windy nights? Yeah. The walls groaned and creaked. What did my wife say? “This place is growing!” I proceeded to leap out of bed switching on every light in the place. Did I mention that I love my wife?
I’ve been reading horror and thriller fiction for as long as I can remember. No book, movie or fireside camp out fright tale has come anywhere close to affecting me the way House of Leaves does. I find myself still lost in its labyrinth. I continue to walk down the long faceless hallways, descending stairs into the enigmatic, all-consuming darkness.