book-reviews

House of Leaves

by Mark Z. Danielewski

Rating: ★★★★★

House of Leaves is a genuinely intriguing book, a horror story trying to claw its way out through the fourth wall and get you. At first approach, it assumes the guise of a collected work -- the editor having gathered the scattered pages of a dead author's work. Rather than the cliché of a diary or life story, though, the book being reconstructed appears to be a critical analysis -- a book about a horror film.

In dense academic tone, the author of this first work begins to outline first the 'trailer' films and then the content of the main work. Yet something is not quite right. As the befuddled editor notes, there is no film with the name or description given, and many of the references are to works which do not exist. Where an author does exist, they mostly deny ever having heard of the work they are supposed to have commented on. This troubles our editor.

And indeed, we soon come to see that the story in the original documents is but part of the whole -- the 'footnotes' of the editor grow ever longer and more intense, as we see him struggle with the text -- trying to find some grounding or explanation for why a critical analysis devotes so much time to detailing the actual content of a film, a film which does not exist. The chapters become prophetic, with both the writing in the original text and the long footnotes conforming to a theme. In a notable event, a chapter about a labyrinth in the film is written as a labyrinth, with footnotes chaining on footnotes, winding their way through both the body and content of the two texts, twisting and turning through the pages. In another about spatial distortion, the formatting becomes incredibly bizarre, wrapping diagonally and even forwards through pages, a small box in several pages containing a continuous list even as other text flows around it. This is not a book which would be easily digitised.

The direction of the horror is clear. Just as the events of the film, where a house starts to rebel against its structure, disturb the author who apparently invents them even as he analyses their composition, so too does the analysis text start to unnerve the young editor piecing it together as he tries to understand it. Predictably, the text reaches out to the vulnerable -- there are collaborative online efforts to analyse the text, people delving into all the many details and subtle references, all the strange symbolism. Alongside this, there are many accounts of people becoming either obsessed with or terrified by the book, people refusing to keep it in their house. If even a fraction of them are true, Danielewski has achieved far more than most horror writers ever will.