In 2000, Mark Z. Danielewski released a curious tome of a novel, House of Leaves. The novel developed an intense fan following. Over a decade later, House of Leaves is still regarded as an example of one of the greatest horror stories ever written. The story is as layered as an almond torte. Danielewski uses narrative devices and the physical layout of the text to influence the emotional journey of the reader.
At its core, House of Leaves is the story of the Navidson family. The patriarch, photojournalist Will Navidson, documents the process of his family moving into a new home. Video cameras placed throughout the house record every moment of their lives. During some renovation work, Will discovers a disturbing oddity — the house is larger on the inside than it is on the outside by a fraction of an inch. Later, the Navidsons return from a vacation to find a mysterious door in their living room wall. This door, which could only open to the exterior of the house, leads instead into a dark, chilly hallway. Navidson hires a team of explorers and travels into the hallway. Inside, his team discovers an impossible, gigantic, and ever-shifting labyrinth. Will documents the journey in a film titled “The Navidson Record.”
“The Navidson Record” is the central narrative of House of Leaves. Danielewski weaves three more layers into the story — Zampano, Johnny Truant, and the Editor. Each of their narratives reveals a new perspective on the tale as a whole.
Johnny Truant is a tattoo-parlor apprentice wandering through life in Los Angeles. He examines the apartment of a recently deceased old man, Zampano. This old man left nothing of significance behind except a trunk full of strange writings. Johnny takes it upon himself to assemble Zampano’s work into a completed manuscript. He discovers something odd — a detailed, exhaustive examination of “The Navidson Record.” The peculiarities of this are two-fold. First, Johnny can find no evidence of the film ever existing. Second, how did Zampano, blind from birth, analyze a visual medium so well?
A third character, the Editor, introduces the meta-concept of the novel from the start: the book we are reading is a combination of Zampano’s work and a journal of Johnny’s experience as he assembled the pieces together. This concept alters the perception of the novel. Danielewski constructs House of Leaves as nonfiction — a chronicle showing the impact of a story on the protagonists’ lives. It becomes something that should not be read, but unfolded and studied.
Creating the Maze
Danielewski uses several techniques to create a sense of limitless depth within the story. The narrative layers serve to provide a constant critique on events from separate perspectives: Zampano interpreting and critiquing the “The Navidson Record,” Johnny questioning Zampano’s analysis, and editorial footnotes that support or undermine facts presented by both. Danielewski embellishes upon the exposition in the massive appendices. The volume and scope of the footnotes create the feeling that House of Leaves is a novel meant to explore, much like the labyrinth at the center of its narrative.
Danielewski also relies on text orientation to mimic the emotional journey of his characters. As the exploration of the labyrinth deepens, the text shifts directions. Footnotes jump to the center of the page. Sometimes words will ring the perimeter like marching ants while at other times words will seem to collapse and fall to the bottom of the page. Conflicting narratives spatter some sections, forcing readers to choose which passages to explore first. Font choice and color are also used to convey extra meaning. House is always shifted upward and in blue.
Struck-through red lettering highlights an entire section of the book focusing on the mythological Minotaur. No explanation can be found for these adjustments, but by themselves they elicit a sense of importance.
Danielewski also utilizes negative space to control the reader’s pace. Some pages have words smashed up against one another like a car accident. Readers flip through pages as a character flees to safety one paragraph at a time. Other passages stretch out sentences, parceling out a few words per page, sometimes even a single one, to draw out feelings of suspense and danger. The layout reveals a subtle narrative. In the meta-fiction, Zampano and Johnny crafted the layout of the novel. Thus, the layout becomes an artistic interpretation of their emotional response to the story. By layout alone, Danielewski provides new insight to his characters.
If we examine the physical design of the text in relation to the narrative, we discover some striking similarities. Navidson’s labyrinth carries him deep into an endless, purposeless, ever-shifting dungeon. Zampano’s analysis of Navidson’ journey is never finished — he continues to write and edit up to the moment of his death. Johnny pours himself into finding meaning and truth in Zampano’s writings but finds neither. He becomes lost within the story, losing his sanity as a result.
In the end, we have three characters searching for meaning within a work that is, behind the curtain, devoid of purpose. The labyrinth carries no revelatory secret. Zampano never finds resolution. Danielewski paints layers of meta-context upon the novel to pull the reader inside. The narrative devices push the reader to examine every footnote for hidden symbolism, to find an answer to the great question, “Why?” But no easy answer waits within the text. Much like our characters, we’re left to interpret the ultimate meaning of House of Leaves by our personal experience.
The cover of House of Leaves is odd – its width shorter than the physical dimensions of the novel. It reveals a sliver of the book beneath it. It is a direct reflection of the work within – like the House and the troubling fraction, the exterior facade of the book is smaller than the story. The cover cannot contain it. The sum is greater than its parts.