not damaged, still scathed
The week I started reading House of Leaves, I found myself frightened by the static of my hair. I am not normally a paranoid person. However, halfway through the novel, while innocuously walking across my room, I felt a few hairs rise due to the static, and my immediate response was fear. Was this connected to the fact that the broken heating system in my room spontaneously began working again? Did any of this have to do with that blood-like substance I found on my drawer yesterday that I could not reconcile no matter how hard I tried? The expanding chaos within House of Leaves was settling within me before I even got close to the climax of the action. I am not normally a paranoid person.
I have tried in the past to describe the novel in a one-sentence summary, but it never goes well. The layers get too complex, and the one sentence becomes overwrought and convoluted. Instead, each layer deserves its own focus. House of Leaves is a 700-plus-page novel by Mark Z. Danielewski. The narrative begins with Johnny Truant, a young man who has gotten ahold of an incomprehensible manuscript that he has tasked himself with editing and publishing. This manuscript, which was written by a blind man named Zampanò, is The Navidson Record, a detailed study of the documentary also entitled The Navidson Record. The documentary follows the Navidson family as they discover a door in their new Virginia home that opens into a seemingly infinite labyrinth of rooms.
House of Leaves is a glorified movie review, interwoven with hundreds of footnotes, accounts from Johnny’s life, and numerous lengthy appendices. It has no business causing the amount of anxiety it does in readers, and yet, it manages to grab onto something so personal in readers that it renders them helpless. Numerous friends have told me they could not get through the book because the fear experienced by the Navidson family caused them too much existential stress. The most intimidating and headstrong man I know was too frightened by how familiar the book felt that he could not keep reading. My boyfriend who recommended the book warned me that it might deeply, viscerally impact me.
He was right. Yet, I still found myself constantly drawn into the mythos of the story and the impossibility of the house. Stuck in my own home for what felt like an oppressively lengthy winter break, I could think of nothing more appealing than infinite space. In my house, every time a door is opened or a window is cracked ajar, a buzzer is set off that can be heard throughout the house. My movements were monitored; I was stuck inside the confines of my familiar home, which made me want to dive deeper and deeper into the ever-expanding house of the Navidsons. Where they found darkness and coldness in the hallways, side-rooms, and stairways of this inexplicable space, and where Johnny found confusion and mania in the pursuit of making this manuscript palatable, I found an endlessly intriguing story. The story and the house itself are in so many ways alike: House of Leaves is a labyrinthine, dark, anxiety-inducing story about a labyrinthine, dark, anxiety-inducing house.
The challenge of the reader is combatting the darkness, and the novel offers respite tucked in little corners of the story. Johnny is in constant search of warmth and of love—or of anything reminiscent of it. Will and Karen Navidson’s marriage is highlighted throughout their struggle, and no part of the novel touched me as deeply as Will’s letter to Karen in which he writes, “there’s no second ive [sic] lived you can’t call your own.” Danielewski himself has argued that the novel, while often considered to be a horror novel, is more akin to a love story. But maybe love is just as frightening as a mysterious house. Maybe it’s even more frightening.
Or, maybe in the aftermath of reading this novel, I have realized that trying to evade the darkness of House of Leaves is foolish. It is the farthest thing from escapism; it takes entirely real children and people in love—uninterested in the pursuit of anything but what is ordinary—and inflicts real, understandable pain onto them. My house in Merrick, NY, may have felt stifling; but somehow I could feel the precise anxiety and wonderment that comes along with wanting to enter unexplored territory. I can still feel that anxiety while writing this.
Whatever else House of Leaves accomplishes, it succeeds in staying with its readers. It is unfair to say that this novel irreparably damaged me, but it is also untrue to say that I am completely unscathed. I am left with more questions than I knew I could have about a fictional novel: Was that typo midway through the novel intentional? Is the house real? Are the Navidsons real? What is so seductive about darkness that even now, weeks later, I cannot get it out of my mind? My friends were right when they told me to take caution when reading this book. But I would rather be anxiously aware, constantly questioning the darkness, than blissfully, boringly ignorant.