This is not for you. Or for me, or for anybody. Which is exactly why I’m picking up this novel again, about four years after the first time it drove me to the edge of madness.
That’s sort of the appeal, after all.
Now risen to cult-classic status, Mark Z. Danielewski’s experimental work, House of Leaves, is no ordinary novel — it’s one maze-like microcosm within another, within another beyond that, infinitely smashed between the front and back cover. With each footnote, narrator, and article from its appendix, House of Leaves leads the reader deeper and deeper into its never-ending abyss — its inverted labyrinth.
The anchor story, The Navidson Record, is fascinating enough on its own.
Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist, Will Navidson, discovers something uncanny about his family’s new house — it’s larger on the inside than it is on the outside. A closet door that opens to an impossible hallway — one that exists on a wall that should lead to the family’s yard — prompts the photojournalist to explore and film what he finds beyond that pitch-black stretch of the unknown.
Navidson’s documentary is framed by another narrator — Zampanò, a mysterious literary critic, of sorts — who analyzes The Navidson Record and the pop cultural hype that accompanies it. As expected of any good researcher and critic, Zampanò marks each and every page with footnotes and citations referencing other sources that support the claims presented in his essay.
A tapestry of literature, art, and popular culture, these footnotes cite our — the current readers’ — favorite books, television, and movies.
There’s just one problem — many of Zampanò’s recognizable resources don’t actually exist.
Which of his citations come from our current reality, and which of them are completely fabricated? It’s hard to tell, as Zampanò cites multiple icons rooted in our reality — with quotes from Mary Shelley, The Oxford Dictionary, and other notables — right alongside apparently fictional people and publications, in a very realistic sense.
Will Navidson himself is, according to Zampanò, “the prize-winning photojournalist who won the Pulitzer for his picture of a dying girl in Sudan.”
Wait, that sounds familiar. There really is a photojournalist who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for his New York Times photo, “The Struggling Girl,” which portrays a starving Sudanese child, stalked by an awaiting vulture. Except, in reality, his name was Kevin Carter and, in the midst of intense backlash from the photo, he committed suicide four months after winning the Pulitzer award. And is this somehow relevant to Will Navidson and House of Leaves? Probably.
But are we going to take the time to check whether or not every single given citation or quote is actually real?
Probably not. When Zampanò’s footnote at the bottom of the page tells us that an above quote from Harvey Weinstein comes from a 1999 piece with Interview magazine, or that the given statement comes from a specific article in The New York Times — and provides dates, editions, and authors to boot — we most likely will accept the statement and move on, reality be damned. Or we’ll simply pay it no mind at all.
In fact, many of the top scientific and literary publications have recently been found guilty of doing just that — accepting “legitimate” research at face value (usually in the name of greed), without any fact-checking of their own. A few researchers who wanted to expose this very point, even went so far as submitting ridiculously silly and unscientific papers to a handful of highly regarded scientific publications — and they were published.
It makes you question what you’re reading a bit, doesn’t it?
In today’s world of the internet, I can cite the claim I just made by inserting a hyperlink that will take you, my reader, directly to the source I am referencing. But in the still somewhat stuffy world of academia — with its research papers, academic journals, and bibliography pages a mile long — footnotes and citations, like those provided by Zampanò, are still very much the norm, and to follow each one to its origin would be a monumental task.
This task also proves to be maddening, when another narrator to House of Leaves — Johnny Truant — discovers Zampanò’s essay about The Navidson Record and begins his own research into Zampanò’s claims, adding his notes and findings to the bottom of each page.
Johnny Truant soon realizes that something just isn’t quite right. With anything. Something is… a bit off about The Navidson Record, Zampanò’s essay, and perhaps even Truant’s own life and memory.
Because, you see, like so many elements of Zampanò’s research, The Navidson Record — despite being referred to and quoted about by many real and famous people in many real and famous publications — appears to be wiped from existence.
I am really fighting the urge to make some point about the “Mandela Effect” phenomena, here. Perhaps later. Trying to stay focused.
And so — paralleling Will Navidson in the ongoing documentary, and Zampanò in the increasingly manic footnotes — Johnny Truant begins to question what is real, what is not, and where the boundary between the two exists.
And, does it matter?
“The Navidson Record now stands as part of this country’s cultural experience and yet in spite of the fact that hundreds of thousands of people have seen it, the film continues to remain an enigma. Some insist it must be true, others believe it is a trick on par with the Orson Welles radio romp The War of the Worlds. Others could care less, admitting that either way The Navidson Record is a pretty good tale.”
Does it matter whether a story is true or not, if the manifestation of the story has already taken hold?
House of Leaves begs you to consider that question as you read — you now being the next narrator to this story within a story within a story, your reality being the next macrocosm to envelop the House of Leaves microcosm. Perhaps you’ll even add your own notes to the margin as you develop a curiosity about the actual House of Leaves copy in your hands — now questioning its author, publication, and inside flap paragraphs.
The unsettling novel is known for haunting its readers in a very real and visceral way, and many people can not finish it. There isn’t blood and gore in House of Leaves, but there is heavy, existential darkness that transcends the pages of the story — one that seeps into your own reality, prompting you to question its nature.
That is if you don’t get lost in the abyss along the way.
Will Navidson says to take his account of unreality literally.
“… all this, don’t take it as anything else but this. And if one day you find yourself passing by that house, don’t stop, don’t slow down, just keep going. There’s nothing there. Beware.”
And, like Navidson says, beware. Because there is something dark at the center of that labyrinth — the one that inevitably winds up around each reader of House of Leaves.
As Navidson feels the claustrophobic, all-consuming nothingness encroaching on him throughout his exploration deeper into the black abyss of his house, so do Zampanò and Truant begin to recognize a very real, very dark encroachment in their own physical realities — just as the next reader of House of Leaves will begin to see it in theirs.
So, contrary to Navidson’s advice, I am going in. After completing the novel once in 2015, I’m venturing down that dark hallway, again. I hope to navigate back through the growing and winding passages in the House of Leaves, finding new and fascinating discoveries. And, in accepting a role as the next Zampanò/Johnny Truant narrator in line, I will share my own notes in the margin with you.
More from my exploration into the House of Leaves, to come.
Written by Kacie Cooper Stotler
Danielewski, Mark Z., House of Leaves. Pantheon Books, 2000.