End Date: October 28th
Author: Mark Z. Danielewski
Pages: 709 (paperback)
Selected By: Elle Tea
“A blind old man, a young apprentice working in a tattoo shop, and a mad woman haunting an Ohio institute narrate this story of a family that encounters an endlessly shifting series of hallways in their new home, eventually coming face-to-face with the awful darkness lying at its heart.”
This is, quite honestly, one of the strangest books I’ve ever read in my life. I was looking for a good Halloween-themed book, which should have been easy enough… except the Ladies of this club are voracious readers, and finding a horror novel that none of us had yet read was like trying to find teeth on a hen. So I turned to recommendations, and House of Leaves consistently came up. But no one seemed to be able to tell me anything about the book other than that it was a bit of an advanced read with an academic air overlying the story itself, which, after talking to a few people, I could only describe to the other Ladies ahead of time as, “A sort of creepy-love-tragedy story type of… thing… maybe?”
Intermittently, Navidson opens the door himself and stares down the hallway, sometimes using a flashlight, sometimes just studying the darkness itself. “What do you do with that?” Navidson asks his brother one evening. “Move,” Tom replies.
And now I’m beholden to write a review about this book, and I find myself in the same tangled web as every other person who’s apparently ever read it. It’s good. It’s very, very good. It’s a bit advanced, but that’s not necessarily the word I’d use for it. I’d say, perhaps… it’s artistic. Interpretive. A performance piece. A surreal painting of words that begins simply enough, a few strokes just where you’d expect them… and then it explodes in a flurry of colors and darkness, slashes seemingly haphazardly (yet meaningfully and with great deliberation) thrown across the canvas, nothing making sense until… it seems to. Maybe.
But you are too young for trees to know anything of their lives. Oh what a crippled existence 900 years must lead.
House of Leaves is essentially a collection of stories:
(I) The Navidson Record. This is the foundation of the book, since the other stories technically appear to revolve around it. The Navidson Record itself is the documentary of Will and Karen Navidson, as well as their children Chad and Daisy, and their ordeal with a new “haunted” home. Prior to becoming The Navidsons, the Missus had been Karen Green, a successful fashion model whose effortless beauty granted her just about anything and anyone she wanted; as someone who spent their entire life basing their worth on their outer beauty, the less glamorous roles of housewife and mommy were just too blasé to suit her, and while Will was away at work she was apparently flashing her winning assets at just about anything that showed her the slightest bit of interest. When we meet them, Will has just given up his career as a death-defying, adventure-seeking photojournalist (think big-time, like Time and Nat-Geo) for the more mundane existence of husband and father. Their purchase of the new house in Virginia is a sort of last-ditch effort to salvage the tattered remnants of their marriage and family. It also happens to be haunted in a sort of… quantum nightmare sort of way. It begins with a hallway that leads where no hallway in that house could possibly lead… and then twists into chambers and staircases, a labyrinth of darkness within which monsters dwell… and are made.
“Goethe once remarked in a letter to Johann Peter Eckermann [March 23, 1829]: ‘I call architecture frozen music.’ The unfreezing of form in the Navidson house releases that music. Unfortunately, since it contains all the harmonies of time and change, only the immortal may savor it. Mortals cannot help but fear those murmuring walls. After all do they not still sing the song of our end?”
(II) Zampanò’s notes. These are where the academic bits come in – rambling academia that goes off on tangents about history and Greek mythology. Zampanò himself is a bit of a mystery as he is already dead at the beginning of the book, and it is the finding of his notes that sets off the tale. The Navidson Record documentary is actually lost, apparently having never been seen by anyone other than Zampanò, who took copious amounts of notes about what he saw on the film. His notes make mention of quite a few people who allegedly also saw this film, and he cites a variety of literature and articles related to the Navidson Record and house.
To put it politely: no fucking way. I know what it means to go mad. I’ll die before I go there. But first I have to find out if that’s where I’m really heading. I’ve got to stop blinking in the face of my fear. I must hear what I scream. I must remember what I dream.
(III) Johnny Truant’s notes. Johnny is the one who found Zampanò’s notes and compiled them into the book we are presumably reading. His story takes place primarily in footnotes – long, drug-addled, babbling footnotes – as he adds his own voice to the madness that revolves around the mysterious Navidson Record. He’s a bit of a drifter, a street-smart survivor who snorts, shoots, drinks, and fucks his way through life. But Zampanò’s notes suddenly give his life focus, they give him meaning and force him to look outside of himself and his own darkness. He becomes obsessed and takes to researching Zampanò’s notes, inserting his findings as the reader moves through the story, sometimes strengthening Zampanò’s notations and our belief in this house (and film… and characters) but more often than not proving the overall unreliability of any of the sources.
I confess even having to write these questions stirs a frenzy in the chambers of my soul. I would like nothing more than to tear out the liver of your purported protector and feed it to him with a hiss.
(IV) Pelafina Lievrè’s letters. Pelafina – or “P” – isn’t in the story itself, so it’s easy to dismiss her voice in this book. But from what I took away from it, she’s integral to the overall tale. She is Johnny’s mother, and her existence is marked solely in the Appendix as a short collection of letters she wrote to her son from a psychiatric hospital known as Whalestoe (there is a separate companion piece called The Whalestoe Letters that is solely comprised of Pelafina’s writings).
Who has never killed an hour? Not casually or without thought, but carefully: a premeditated murder of minutes. The violence comes from a combination of giving up, not caring, and a resignation that getting past it is all you can hope to accomplish. So you kill the hour. You do not work, you do not read, you do not daydream. If you sleep it is not because you need to sleep. And when at last it is over, there is no evidence: no weapon, no blood, and no body. The only clue might be the shadows beneath your eyes or a terribly thin line near the corner of your mouth indicating something has been suffered, that in the privacy of your life you have lost something and the loss is too empty to share.
And those are the facts about House of Leaves. Everything else is pretty much open to interpretation. Like all art, whatever you bring with you is what you will use to interpret the book and the stories there, and it will be whatever you make it. It could be a horror novel – it was for BillMo. It could be a love story. It could be a tragedy. It could be all of those things. Or none of them. For me, the most interesting chapters were those dealing with the documentary itself, the notes detailing the events within the house – until Johnny Truant’s final entry. That last chapter of his completely changed the entire book for me and forced me to reinterpret the main series of stories as well as the letters in the Appendix, and from those few things what had been a “creepy weird story” for hundreds of pages suddenly (and pretty jarringly) became a tragic tale of love, loss, and how we cope with that… the lengths we’ll take to cope.
Dammit, okay, look – it’s a bit of an advanced read with an academic air overlying the story itself, which is a sort of creepy-love-tragedy type of thing. Maybe. And if you’re sick of being spoon-fed fiction, I recommend this one for you.
Little solace comes / to those who grieve / when thoughts keep drifting / as walls keep shifting / and this great blue world of ours / seems a house of leaves / moments before the wind.
If you haven’t read House of Leaves yet, you may want to stop here. What follows is my interpretation of this book, and it’s better to get all the way through it without hearing someone else’s opinion, lest it influence your own. If you’ve read the book and care to know how I saw it in the end, then read on!
*****SPOILER ALERT***** >>> Long-story-short, I think the only true tale in the whole book was that which appears near the end about the mother and baby, and House of Leaves in its entirety was written by Pelafina as a way of giving her son life while simultaneously forgiving herself for her necessary act of mercy. Zampanò never existed (though he may have been modeled by her after Johnny’s father), nor did the Navidsons or their house. It’s all a lie – a complete fabrication, from the compiled photographs and letters to the footnotes on top of footnotes, it’s all a love letter from a mother who never stopped grieving for the son she lost. I spent most of the book just making note of questionable things: the admittance, more than once and by more than one character, that the entire thing could be a hoax, a complete and utter fiction; the fact that neither of our narrators (Zampanò and Johnny) were in any way reliable; throughout the tale it seemed like at least one character had made up another, but it never felt clear who was “real” to me until the end; at one point in Johnny’s story Pelafina spoke to Zampanò, which never could have happened if anything about Johnny’s history as told by Johnny was true; regardless of whether it was Zampanò or Johnny or Pelafina, they all seemed to have an extensive vocabulary and familiarity with history and mythology; the whole Johnny and Johnnie thing just seemed too… wrong, etc. And then towards the end, when Johnny suddenly upends his happily-ever-after and admits it never happened, that he’s never even been to Seattle… And then suddenly a space and paragraph later, someone – presumably Johnny based on the font but with a very different tone, a very somber, sorrowful tone – tells a story allegedly told to them by a doctor in Seattle about a mother and the death of her newborn son. I really think House of Leaves was poor Pelafina’s attempt to give her lost baby life – not a great one, but a realistic one, one that made it okay for her to have done what she did, that absolved her and allowed her to at least marginally forgive herself. Maybe she went mad, maybe she didn’t. Who knows. But she loved her boy, in the end, and never stopped loving him. Remember, one of the most poignant statements in the book is that “love inhabits more than just the heart and mind. If need-be, it can take shelter in a big toe.” And Pelafina’s love took shelter in a toe as big as a Whale’s. <<< *****END SPOILER*****
Elle’s Favorite Character(s): Tom Navidson for the bulk of it, but, given my own (spoiler-section) interpretation above, Pelafina.
Elle Tea read the Pantheon paperback version of this selection.
This was a really good book and definitely an excellent pick for October! While reading this, I decided that if Elle and I wrote a book together, this is what we would come up with: two stories in one that would be related, yet not, with one author going off on academical and historical stream of consciousness rants and the other just… going off… taking readers on a rambling, random trip that leaves them wondering, “How in the heck did we get here, and what the heck was that?!” And it would be just as awesome as House of Leaves. Maybe.
Zampano knew from the get-go that what’s real or isn’t real doesn’t matter here. The consequences are all the same.
This book really kept me guessing the whole time, and at the end it’s still a mystery – I don’t want to give too much away, but it was definitely one of the weirdest books that was still definitely a good read.
Something’s behind me. Of course, I deny it. It’s impossible to deny. I wanna puke.
My favorite parts of this book were all of the chapters related to the Navidson house itself. The author painted such a vivid picture of what it was like that it was like I was watching a documentary or found-footage horror film (like Paranormal Activity or Grave Encounters). Something that bothers me in scary movies more than anything else are creepy children, and there’s a scene in the Navidson Record that has really stuck with me because it hit that fear-point: Navidson asks his son why he doesn’t like the quiet of the house, and the child responds, “It’s like something’s waiting.” And that’s never a good sign… nothing good comes from kids sensing something is watching them… or when they come up with some new imaginary friend. Nope. Nope. Nope.
Why did god create a dual universe? So he might say, “Be not like me, I am alone.” And it might be heard.
My second favorite parts were probably those related to Johnny Truant. There were parts of his story that I liked a lot, like when he thought he saw a monster at his workplace – and that was a pretty creepy scene. But more often than not I just found myself feeling badly for him. Nothing seemed to go right in his life, and the only luck he seemed to have involved being very popular with the ladies… because, wow, I’m surprised he had time to go through any of the records about the book, what with all the diddling he was doing. Or, to put it more bluntly, Johnny has does quite a bit of the sex all over the place with all the freaky girls. All of them. Everywhere.
I’m afraid. It is hungry. It is immortal. Worse, it knows nothing of whim.
I had a soft spot for Tom, Navidson’s brother, as well as Billy Reston, who, my dear sirs and madams, was a very good friend. He went right into the darkness with his best bud and stuck by his side. Meanwhile, my least favorite character was, surprisingly enough not Holloway but Karen, who could use a loyalty and commitment lesson from Billy. It’s no big secret from very early in that she was an adulterer, but everyone seems to think that’s okay because she’s such a pretty thing whose husband left her all alone so much, and all she could do, really, was seek comfort from other men. Nothing about their relationship was healthy, and her behavior was just totally unlikable for me.
Also remember, love inhabits more than just the heart and mind. If need-be, it can take shelter in a big toe.
In the end, I wish there had been more chapters actually inside the Navidson house itself. It was great being there and watching things unfold, and if there’d been more inside the house I think I could have read this book over and over again without ever getting bored. I think it would be great to turn this book into a movie – I’m not sure how it would translate on film, but I’d like to see a talented screenwriter, director, and cast take it on.
You wouldn’t believe how much harder it’s getting for me to just leave my studio. It’s really sad. In fact, these days the only thing that gets me outside is when I say: Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck you. Fuck me. Fuck this. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.
Another quote I liked that won’t fit into the body of my review:
Whereupon Navidson’s eye quickly pans from the thoughtless splatter of grey matter and blood to more pressing things, the groan of the living calling him away from the sigh of the dead.
And one more:
“Pure fabrication. The script was written by a man, right? What self-respecting woman is afraid of the dark? Women are everything that’s internal and hidden. Women are darkness. I cover some of this in my book Sexual Personae, due out from Vintage in a few months.”
Bill’s Favorite Character(s): Tom Navidson. He seemed like an Everyday Joe kind of man with a great personality, someone that you could sit down and just bullshit with. He seemed to care deeply while still being very laid back, and he loved his family and was there when they needed him. Plus my very favorite parts of the book involved him confronting his fears of having a monster in the house by making jokes about and at it – and his jokes were actually pretty funny.
BillMo read the Pantheon paperback version of this selection.
Caveat: Lady Esbe did not finish reading this selection.
It seems I’m always apologizing for my reviews as of late – in this case, I apologize for the tardiness as well as the brevity.
With all that is going on, I managed to get through 74 pages in 58 days. That’s right, folks – all of 74 pages of a 600+ page book. From what I did read, it is well-constructed and intriguing; however, much of it was written quite like a text book, and while the multiple storylines did have me curious, I did not have time to delve far enough into the novel to unravel the different storylines. What did strike me that I wanted to understand is what causes the various characters to devolve. Unfortunately, I just didn’t have the time to dedicate, so knowing even that wasn’t in the cards for me this time around.
One of the most memorable scenes for me was after Navidson ventured into the hallway – his feeling of being stalked and searching for his escape route, which is then followed by another narrator (whose name I’ve forgotten at this point) who has a similar experience while at his place of employment but comes away with a real injury.
At only 74 pages in, I cannot provide very much insight, but when I was able to engage in the story beyond a couple of pages I did find myself intrigued and curious. However, in the converse, it could also be said that if I had to fight through this two pages at a time, it was clearly too much like a textbook, and I just don’t have that kind of brainpower after a long day at work.
Esbe’s Favorite Character(s): No one.
Lady Esbe read the Turtleback Books version of this selection.