House of Madness
“HOUSE OF LEAVES”
by Mark Z. Danielewski, 2000
Danielewski's debut novel is an actual book that does what the fictional Necronomicon of HP Lovecraft or Robert W. Chambers' The King in Yellow purport to do: it invokes madness. Simply flipping through House of Leaves might freak you out.
But maddening though it might be, it's not scary. It is not a horror story. If it were, the house would have a ghost.
The introduction makes it clear that this is a book about a book about a documentary about a house. The documentary in question seems like a “found-footage” horror film. That's an acceptable trope for a story but Danielewski goes well beyond that. The everyman narrator Truant comments on the scholarly narrator Zampanò, but there's something maddening about Zampanò's narrative: this is a book written by a blind man.
Curious, isn't it, that a blind man would be so obsessed with a house that has no features and no light? For him, he's always inside that house of eternal darkness.
HoL is a very literary-heavy book. 1 The reader is required to bring a great deal to the table if he's going to enjoy this one. Or even comprehend a small percentage. While I can envision a movie made of this book (a found-footage movie, but with subtitles and narration and cutaways to show the later commentators), it would have to be seriously paired down and most of its power would be lost. Indeed, when the book seems to end, it isn't. More is to be revealed in those Exhibits and Appendixes.
At times, HoL is ponderous, slow, and more than a little pretentious. But it needs to be. Because even the bits that are pretentious will drive you mad.
It's filled with mysteries and puzzles, and it’s not usually made clear when a puzzle pops up. You just have to look for it. Some, such as the missing letters and words from one chapter forming a secret message were brought to my attention by other readers. But as I've never liked puzzles, I just skipped over them. I did make the effort for one of Johnny’s mom’s letters.
Madness is a major theme in the book, from those who lose their grip because of their experiences in the house to those who were maybe crazy to begin with or were raised by crazy parents. The house is not only maddening but madness personified. Like the time machine from a certain long-running British television show, the house in the book is bigger on the inside than the outside. Given the multitude of footnotes, I'm surprised none of them make this analogy. 4
Humans are creatures of habit. When we pass by a door every day for twenty years, we expect it to be there tomorrow—and my, aren't we bothered when we find it gone.
Ultimately, this is a book about that most illusive and subjective quality, human perception. A thing is only scary if you think it's scary. Nonetheless. it's easy to find something scary if every part of you screams that it's impossible—but there it is in front of you.
1. There are hundreds of footnotes (like this one), but not all or even most are authentic. I don't advise the reader to bother looking them up. But Danielewski might—he knows it will drive you crazy even faster. 2 It's a bit of a gimmick, but it works. Most, if not all, of those seemingly superfluous footnotes really do add a great deal to the book. Without them, the story resembles an episode of The Twilight Zone. That said, I wouldn't want to read another book written in this whacked-out style. One is enough—or as Voltaire said, “Once a philosopher, twice a pervert.” 3
2. Due to the large number of spurious footnotes, I believe no two readers have ever read HoL in exactly the same order. And that's fine. No matter the order in which it's read, it's a great and disturbing read and a book unlike anything you've ever read.
3. “Une fois un philosophe, deux fois par un pervers.”
4. Somewhere in my extensive collection of book of true-life paranormal incidents, I read of a factual case somewhat similar to this, at least in some ways. It occurred somewhere in the Midwest, but it involved an open field, not a house. A man disappeared in the field, in full view of everyone. Years later, his family could hear his voice in the field, telling them he was lost in a dark place.