“House of Leaves” by Mark Z. Danielewski is a strange book. It is meant to be a horror book and won some prizes in that genre. It uses a setup that will be familiar to most people who have read horror books or seen horror movies before. A family moves into a new house which turns out to have some unnatural properties like being bigger on the inside than it logically can be when viewed from the outside. That inner story has some fun deviations from the usual trope like using a tape to measure the house from the outside and then also measuring it inside and actually seeing that there is a difference. Also new and extensive rooms and hallways appear and teams of adventurers set out to explore them.
If the book only contained that inner story it would be an OK horror book but as the term “inner story” indicates there is also an outer story.
Some old guy dies and some younger guy finds an unfinished book and lots of notes. He starts to edit that unfinished book with the intention to publish it someday.
The new house owners from that inner story installed cameras everywhere in the house and also used cameras while exploring those new rooms. The book the young guy is editing describes a movie based on the live action recorded with those cameras. The movie is said to have made some impression. Articles and books have been written about specific scenes in the movie and about the people in it. This book here isn’t just a retelling of the movie. There are many footnotes that reference those articles and books.
It’s quite common that after a few pages retelling some scenes in the movie it switches to a deeper exploration of some topic — for example the meaning of the black color — with citations of other books and articles and yet more footnotes.
But that’s only the work of the old guy. The young guy also adds footnotes of his own. The old guy added citations from other books from time to time and often those citations aren’t in English. There are some in German, French, Greek and some other languages which I have forgotten. Some of them have been translated by the old guy but many have not. The young guy searches for people who are able to translate those citations. Most of those translators are women with whom he also has sex. He describes those and other interactions with other people in his own footnotes which often fill several pages.
Editing that book has some strange effects on that young guy. It’s haunting him.
And then there is one more layer. I read the remastered full color edition which also contains some footnotes from the editors of that edition. That remastered edition comes with an extensive appendix. In one of their footnotes the editors point to a part of the appendix that contains some letters the guy received from his mother while being a teenager. She wrote those letters while residing in a mental institution. Those letters tell the story of the family of the young guy and his time at foster families.
But that’s not enough. The typesetting of the book is also special. The word “house” is always typeset in blue — even if it is the part of another word like “warehouse” or in German like in “Haus”. Some passages are in red and stroked through and I actually needed to use a magnifying glass to read those sections. Sometimes there are long rows of Xs where normally text would be and sometimes pages only contain a few words and one sentence is distributed on several pages when an important moment is described. Sometimes one needs to rotate the book to read the text and on other occasions there are footnotes that run on the sides of several pages and just contain names of other houses.
That book is really strange and it is quite often exhausting, but it’s also fascinating, because how can someone come up with an idea to write such a book and actually do it. And Danielewski is a master in the art of writing. And even though the idea of a house that is bigger inside than outside isn’t new, the author adds some interesting ideas and packages it all with his very own style.
If you want to read only books that have a beginning, an ending and some climax in-between, then this book is totally not for you. But if you want to try something new and insane and have patience then try this one.