{Book Review} Michael J. Nicholson visits Ash Tree Lane and offers a fascinating review of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House Of Leaves

Exit, pursued by a minotaur


This article is not for you

I never saw
The heavens so dim by day A savage clamour!
Well may I get aboard! This is the chase:
I am gone for ever. [Exit, pursued by a bear
Antigonus, The Winter’s Tale. Act III, Scene 3

Before we begin, a brief warning: this article contains spoilers. Though, frankly, there is no possible way I could include enough spoilers of this book to even come close to diluting the experience. Reading House of Leaves is a journey, one that does not permit travelling companions.

Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves is a Borgian labyrinth of a story within a story within a story, all of which are related by unreliable narrators who may or may not be the product of the disturbed imagination of the unreliable narrator one Inception level up. Even the book itself follows this pattern, the first edition being supposedly lost forever, or was it online once upon a time? Any first edition you might find for sale will claim to be a second edition, leaving us forever wondering what extra revelations we may have missed by not reading the original text.

Confused yet? Just wait. It gets better. Or worse, depending on your point of view.

See, the irony is it makes no difference that the documentary at the heart of this book is fiction.
— Johnny Truant

For those unfamiliar with the book, the central story – or at least the story at its “deepest” level – centres on the Navidson family. Will Navidson, a successful documentary photographer, his wife – Karen Green, a former fashion model – and their two children, Chad and Daisy. They have just moved into a new house in Virginia. The house on Ash Tree Lane.

Will and Karen have a number of issues, as do their children. These are revealed gradually, over the course of what is referred to as The Navidson Record. This is a probably-fictional documentary-slash-video-journal made by Will Navidson telling the story of the house and its occupants.

We experience this documentary via a manuscript written by a blind recluse named Zampanò, recently deceased. This manuscript is fed to us in bits and pieces by Johnny Truant, a young man working in a tattoo parlour, who – by sheer chance – comes into possession of the trunk full of papers left behind by the deceased Zampanò.

Johnny’s story is told primarily in the footnotes to the Navidson record, itself revealed by the found footage notes created by Zampanò in the main text. Footnotes from Zampanò interleave with those from Johnny making the book itself a more elaborate version of the old horror trope, the epistolary novel. It certainly owes something to the classics: DraculaThe Call of CthuluFrankenstein. Though a better analogy would be: Frankenstein’s creation found Thurston’s notes, wrote an academic dissertation on them, went mad, died under mysterious circumstances, then the dissertation was discovered in an old trunk by Jonathon Harker, who tried to make sense of it all whilst living in a room in Castle Dracula and dealing with everything happening there.

Yes, I would quite like to see that movie. Somebody, please make it.

Simply coming into contact with the Navidson record, however tangentially, and however many layers removed the experience may be, does not seem to end well for anybody. Johnny, reading somebody else’s notes on the infamous film, appears to slowly lose his grip on reality, relating stories of things that may or may not have happened.

We all create stories to protect ourselves.
— Johnny Truant

We, the readers, are simply the next level of abstraction in this story, and the madness of Johnny and Zampanò (and yes, Navisdson too, in his own way) is ours to deal with the deeper into the story we get.

I first came across the book shortly after its publication in 2000. At the time, I was living by myself in a small apartment in Oslo, a fact that almost certainly contributed to the months of freakishly disturbing dreams. The book deals heavily with themes of claustrophobia and agoraphobia, and while I’ve always rather enjoyed the solitude of living alone, there are some books that are best read in wide-open spaces or a houseful of other people, just to ground yourself in reality.

Our first real indication that something is wrong with the house comes when Navy discovers that the outside measurements are smaller than the inside measurements. It is shortly after this he, assuming that he simply lacks the tools or the skills to measure correctly, calls in his brother to help with some more accurate measurements. This is essentially where we enter the labyrinth.

As a child raised on Doctor Who, the concept of a structure that was bigger on the inside did not itself freak me out. The sense of creeping dread sneaks up slowly though and you, the reader, may not even realise you are the frog being boiled alive. I could not put my finger on exactly when the lurking presence began stalking my dreams. I know it lingered for months after I’d finished reading the book. I suspect it was looking for somewhere to settle, and I will – at some distant point in the future – meet it face to face during the dark, lonely hours around 2AM, when something happens in my life to surface old memories.

This much I’m certain of: it doesn’t happen immediately. You’ll finish [the book] and that will be that, until a moment will come, maybe in a month, maybe a year, maybe even several years … Out of the blue, beyond any cause you can trace, you’ll suddenly realize things are not how you perceived them to be at all. For some reason, you will no longer be the person you believed you once were. You’ll detect slow and subtle shifts going on all around you, more importantly shifts in you. Worse, you’ll realize it’s always been shifting … But you won’t understand why or how. You’ll have forgotten what granted you this awareness in the first place.
… you’ll watch yourself dismantle every assurance you ever lived by. You’ll stand aside as a great complexity intrudes, tearing apart, piece by piece, all of your carefully conceived denials, whether deliberate or unconscious. And then for better or worse you’ll turn, unable to resist, though try to resist you still will, fighting with everything you’ve got not to face the thing you most dread, what is now, what will be, what has always come before, the creature you truly are, the creature we all are, buried in the nameless black of a name.
And then the nightmares will begin.
— Johnny Truant

This quote is from the introduction, and should be heeded. Right at the start, the book itself is warning us to proceed at our own risk. Here be monsters. This is not for you. Heed that warning; ignore it at your peril.

The nagging feeling that something isn’t right starts small. It seeps off the pages and bleeds into reality. Perhaps it started when Karen built the shelves in the nook. Wall to wall shelves. Then confusion when a book falls off the end, into the foot-wide gap where the shelves no longer meet the wall.

Perhaps it started when Johnny tells us about the deep claw marks he discovers in the wooden floor of Zampanò’s small apartment. It is certainly a key turning point for Johnny. Do we even know about the labyrinth at this point? Does anybody explicitly say the word “minotaur“? You don’t recall.

X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X XlabyrX X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X houseX X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X

Perhaps it started when Daisy appears where she shouldn’t be, having moved through a closet with a connecting doorway that wasn’t there previously? Or when the mysterious door appeared in the wall of the living room, with the 5 1/2 minute hallway behind it? Or when Navy started his explorations, going farther and farther in. Or when we first hear “the growl”. Or … Or …

All the narratives – The Navidson Record, Zampanò’s notes, Johnny’s footnotes – lead us inevitably towards the unsettling conclusion that,just possibly, the world is not what we think it is, and maybe we’ve just caught a glimpse of something behind the scenes, something we can’t begin to understand. In this sense, the book might best be classed as cosmic horror. I could certainly make an argument for that, but in the end everybody needs to work out what it is for themselves. If you only read the Navidson record for example, skipping Johnny and Zampanò’s notes, you might think it a family drama and the house mere metaphor.

Such simplistic interpretations are not for the likes of us though. If you feel drawn to this book, you dig deep by nature. It’s in your DNA.

Danielewski very deliberately enhances the disconcerting feeling with the formatting of the book. If you’ve read it, you know what I’m talking about. If not, well … I suggest you pick up a copy and just flick through the pages. In short, the book relies heavily on formatting. Some pages contain only a couple of words, others contain hundreds, but require you to spin the book to read them. The ergodic nature of the text means the reader is constantly flipping back and forth between the core text and a number of footnotes referencing yet more footnotes. I found myself recalling my younger days reading (cheating with?) Choose Your Own Adventure and Fighting Fantasy books, with all four fingers marking different pages to systematically return to once I exhausted the current chain. There are footnotes that lead you round in circles, and even the index, with it’s entries linked to “DNE” (Does Not Exist … probably) rather than a page number, implies hidden knowledge or excised lore. Did Johnny Truant or Zampanò think it too dangerous to include? Did Danielewski himself censor it to keep us sane, and this is why there is only a second edition of the text – the only extant first edition being shelved in the Library of Babel next to the Necronomicon?

These are the sort of questions you find yourself asking once you’ve entered the house.

The pace at which you turn the pages is intricately tied to the formatting of the novel; one reason this could never work as an eBook. In places you find yourself rapidly flicking through the pages, elsewhere you can essentially be on the same page for an hour as you follow footnotes. There is of course no right way to read this, and I know some people ignore the footnotes. To get the full immersive experience though, my personal opinion is they need to be read as they are referenced. Follow the white rabbit down the hole.

This book is Nietzsche’s abyss shaped and given form not only by words, but the spaces between them. It burrows into the darkest parts of your mind and soul and dares you to gaze into it. And who can resist a dare?

Welcome to the house on Ash Tree Lane. Just remember: you were warned!

No one ever really gets used to nightmares.
— Johnny Truant

House Of Leaves

A young couple – Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Will Navidson and his partner Karen Green – move into a small home on Ash Tree Lane.

But something is terribly wrong – their house is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.

Neither Will nor Karen are prepared to face the consequences of this impossibility.

What happens next is loosely recorded on videotapes and interviews, leading to a compilation of the definitive work on the events on Ash Tree Lane, unveiling a thrilling and terrifying history.

Loose sheets, stained napkins and crammed notebooks prove to be far more than the ramblings of a crazy old man . . .

For fans of Twin Peaks, Black Mirror, Stranger Things and IT.

You can buy House Of Leaves from Amazon UK & Amazon US

Michael J. Nicholson

Michael is a displaced Englishman living in the countryside just outside Stockholm, Sweden. He moved there for work, stayed for love, and would like to leave for the winters. He aspires to write full time, so he bought a wine company and works as an IT consultant by day. In the small slices of time between work, child-wrangling and sleep he does occasionally find time to write and has featured in the “Robbed of Sleep” anthologies and the No Sleep Podcast.

Michael can be found at @michjnich on Twitter.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.