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1001 Book Review: House of Leaves Mark Z Danielewski

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It’s time for another joint review. This time, Book Worm and I both read House of Leaves. We had pretty different reactions to the book. One of us loved it and the other thought it was just okay. Can you guess which one of us loved it? House of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski
Published in: 2000
Reviewed by: Book Worm  and Jen
Find it here: House of Leaves

Synopsis from Goodreads; Years ago, when House of Leaves was first being passed around, it was nothing more than a badly bundled heap of paper, parts of which would occasionally surface on the Internet. No one could have anticipated the small but devoted following this terrifying story would soon command. Starting with an odd assortment of marginalized youth — musicians, tattoo artists, programmers, strippers, environmentalists, and adrenaline junkies — the book eventually made its way into the hands of older generations, who not only found themselves in those strangely arranged pages but also discovered a way back into the lives of their estranged children.

Now, for the first time, this astonishing novel is made available in book form, complete with the original colored words, vertical footnotes, and newly added second and third appendices.

The story remains unchanged, focusing on a young family that moves into a small home on Ash Tree Lane where they discover something is terribly wrong: their house is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.

Of course, neither Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Will Navidson nor his companion Karen Green was prepared to face the consequences of that impossibility, until the day their two little children wandered off and their voices eerily began to return another story — of creature darkness, of an ever-growing abyss behind a closet door, and of that unholy growl which soon enough would tear through their walls and consume all their dreams.

Book Worm’s Thoughts: ★★★ The first thing I need to say about this book is that no matter how much you may love your e-reader (I really love mine), this is a book that can only be read in paper format. That is due to the way things are laid out. It would be impossible to get the same experience on a screen (not sure if they even make an e-version, but if they do don’t buy it).

The second thing I need to say is that this is not an easy read — not in terms of content but in terms of how you read the book. There are footnotes on practically every page and some of the footnotes have footnotes of their own. The footnotes often continue over multiple pages. So at some points you have to decide either to read the main narrative and go back to the footnotes or to read the whole footnote and go back to the main narrative. This makes reading a mentally exhausting project.

Here are some pictures of what the book looks like:

The first 2 images show the kind of footnotes you may find. Image 1 has notes in the left and right hand columns, the right hand side is upside down. Images 3 and 4 show the way the narrative is laid out at certain points to reflect what is happening to the characters. Sometimes you are reading up the page, sometimes down. Sometimes there are large spaces between words and sometimes the words are close together.

I am undecided about how I feel about this structure.  Yes it is an interesting technique, but it feels gimmicky and the environmentalist in me doesn’t like the waste of paper.

In terms of the actual story there are 2 distinct narratives. The Navidson Record is the recounting of a family’s experience in a haunted house based on videos and interviews given at the time events were occurring. This section reminded me of Lovecraft in terms of what happens and the kind of horror experienced. It also reminded me of The Blair Witch Project in terms of the dodgy camera work mainly showing darkness with occasional glimpse of light.

The second narrative revolves around the story of Johnny Truant who finds the papers about the Navidson Record.  He is trying to piece it all together and find out what is true while his life is falling apart around him and he tumbles into paranoia and delusions.

While I enjoyed both narratives, the extensive footnotes drove me mad, especially as some of them were so boring. Many are just lists that, as far as I could see, added nothing to the narrative. Lots of them are references to other books, some real and some clearly not. These were there to give the book authenticity, but really do we need so many?

For enjoyment I have given this 3 stars. The creepy story is well done as is the central love story. In terms of originality of writing, I would probably give this 4 stars as there is clearly an intent to convey what the characters are feeling through how the pages are laid out (no matter how gimmicky this came across).

So who would enjoy this book? If you like the look of my photos above chances are you will enjoy the story, also if you like the horror writings of Lovecraft the creepy storyline will probably appeal to you and finally if you like a book that is a challenge to read this is definitely one for you.

Jen’s Review: ★★★★★. I loved this book! I’m glad that Book Worm posted some images of pages. Perhaps it was a bit gimmicky but regardless, it was unlike anything I have ever read before and because of that alone I think it merited the 5 stars. Structurally, the book was brilliant. The layout of the pages mirrored what was happening in the book in a way that allowed the reader to feel immersed in the story. For example, when characters were lost in the maze-like parts, the readers were right there with them trying to sort out the right direction to go in the text (e.g. follow the footnotes, follow the main text, use the mirror to read, etc.). Often, the experience of reading was completely disorienting.

Danielewski was able to create a book that thoroughly creeped me out. Horror is not generally my genre of choice but I do like a scary tale every now and then, and this book was exactly the type of scary that I find so effective (not the gore and slasher type books). Book Worm mentions that there are two narratives but in fact there are actually three narratives: The Navidson film, the “academic” report of the film written up by Zampano, and the story of Johnny Truant. All three voices and perspectives come through during the course of the book. I found both the Navidson film and the story of Johnny to be terrifying in different ways. In Johnny’s case we are essentially watching him go through a mental breakdown. So while the exploration of the house in the Navidson film was scary because of the unknown, Johnny’s text was also extremely disconcerting. In contrast, I found Zampano’s narrative to be funny. As an academic myself, I found the ways in which Danielewski poked fun at esoteric academic reports to be accurate and humorous. Book Worm wrote above that some of the footnotes were boring and unnecessary but I think that they were intended to poke fun at the ways in which academic reports are constructed. As such, I liked them and they made me laugh. If you read them carefully, you’ll be amused at some of the ridiculous titles.

So who would enjoy this book? Book Worm mentions that fans of Lovecraft will like this book. That may be true, but the one Lovecraft I read, I really disliked and yet I loved this book. I think the book will appeal to those who like experimental work, unique structural styles, and psychological horror.

Want to try it for yourself? You can find a copy here: House of Leaves

We want to hear from you! Have you read this book? What did you think? 

12 Comments Post a comment
  1. I agree with you Jen. I read the book two years ago and loved it. It was an amazing experience reading it. I have his newest book The Familiar on my to read list, I just hope it doesn’t disappoint.

    Like

    April 26, 2016
  2. Loved it. Basically I thought the story was The Amityville Horror redone, so the structure was crucial. Will be eager to see what you think about Night Film.

    Like

    April 26, 2016
  3. I started this book several years ago because it’s one of my husband’s favorites, but I quit pretty early on. I’ve been vaguely meaning to pick it up again, though. Someday I will.

    Like

    April 26, 2016
  4. Those pictures make it look like hard work! I think I’m more swayed by Book’s take on it. I like quirky books, but sometimes quirkiness gets overtaken by gimmickiness.

    Like

    April 27, 2016
    • Hurray someone has joined team BW it was getting lonely here

      Liked by 1 person

      April 28, 2016
    • I read this a long time ago but it remains one of my favourite books. It was pressed upon me by a friend without much of an introduction, so I had no idea what to expect when I started it. The layout of the weirder-looking pages does take a bit of getting used to, but I didn’t find them frustrating in any way. Absolutely unforgettable.

      Like

      April 28, 2016
      • I don’t think it would frustrate me. I liked the footnotes/asides in T S Spivet. I think it would make me think I could be doing something else instead of twisting a book around or reading it through mirrors. There’s also something about the layout that makes me think of the Thompson Chain Reference Bible my dad had, which bewildered me as a child.

        I’m staying team BW on this one.

        Liked by 1 person

        April 28, 2016
  5. Tracy S #

    Just started this today, and enjoying it so far!

    Like

    April 27, 2016
  6. When this was first recommended to me, I was told it’s the kind of book that makes you want to staple measuring tapes to your walls to make sure the size of the room isn’t changing. I laughed, but it turned out to be an eerily accurate description. I’m not usually one for thrillers, but House of Leaves nailed it.

    Like

    May 1, 2016
    • Ha, that is a good way to describe it to someone. I agree

      Like

      May 1, 2016
  7. When I first read about this book I just had to order it. Flicking though the pages before I sat down to immerse myself in it I thought that it would be either absolutely awesome or pretentious rubbish.
    What a book! It draws you in straight away and I felt like I was actually watching the Navidson Record at times, so creepy.
    I’m in awe of just how much detail was put into the book, from the format of the text to the long lists of names (made-up ones?) in the footnotes, to the text that is mirrored from the previous page over a few pages around a third of the way through (you’ll know what I mean if you’ve read it).
    I can’t reference too much as my copy is still out on loan- its with friend number 5 now who I’ve forced to read it!
    I can’t wait to finally get it back and check it out again- I’m sure there’s lots I missed the first time round!!!!
    A work of genius!

    Like

    July 19, 2016

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