House of Leaves Just Blew Us Away, Again

House of Leaves Just Blew Us Away, Again

Did you hear that one about the book that’s about a man reading a manuscript about a movie that doesn’t exist?

I first read House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski after its original publication in March 2000 and have been itching to revisit ever since. It’s taken over a decade because I usually prioritise reading something I haven’t read over something I already have. Then a few weeks ago, House of Leaves — one of the few books I brought with me when I moved from New York to California in 2009 — kind of jumped off the bookshelf. It was time and I dove in. I know that House of Leaves is beloved in some circles but it’s also completely absent in others. I love to recommend it whenever I can. And so this random revisit is my public service to those who are completely unaware of who Will Navidson, Zampanò, or Johnny Truant are.

House of Leaves is, to put it mildly, complicated. A Los Angeles tattoo parlor worker (Johnny Truant) finds a trunk full of pages written by his friend’s blind neighbour (Zampanò), now deceased. Johnny decides to put the pages in order and finds an overly in-depth analysis of a film called The Navidson Record about one family’s very unusual house. However, Johnny quickly realises The Navidson Record is not an actual movie. Zampanò has written a manuscript for something that doesn’t exist.

House of Leaves Just Blew Us Away, Again

And so the book plays out on multiple levels. There’s Zampanò’s manuscript about this nonexistent movie. Johnny’s thoughts about the book as he’s putting it all together. Numerous asides, footnotes, etc. It’s a little confusing, but what sucks you into House of Leaves isn’t the top-down view — it’s the content of the “film” that’s treated like it’s real by both Zampanò and Johnny. (Johnny realises it’s not real immediately but, like the reader, is too captivated to deviate.)

The Navidson Record — in Zampanò’s manuscript, which we’re reading as Johnny — is a “documentary” directed by a famous photographer named Will Navidson which was “released” by Miramax. It tells the story of Navidson and his family who move into a new house in Virginia and, one day, discover a door that leads to nowhere. This door should lead into the yard but what’s behind it is total blackness that just goes on and on. It’s unclear what it is, where it is, where it goes, or how it got there. One thing is for sure though: the house is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. And so, Navidson begins to investigate the space himself, then hires a team of actual explorers to go deeper and deeper into the infinity. Things get weird and scary.

I equate The Navidson Record to almost a multiverse Blair Witch Project. It’s a small, “real life” documentary described as being financially successful and, subsequently, creating a whole subculture of debate and scrutiny over its validity. Zampanò’s manuscript is a summation of all that cultural conversation, so he draws upon all manner of academic research, documentaries, interviews, and more to not just recap The Navidson Record, but to analyse it to its bones. These hundreds and hundreds of specific records cite mostly non-existent works, just like The Navidson Record itself.

The existence of this tangled tome and his attempts to explore how and why it exists take a toll on Johnny. His real-life mental and physical deterioration is juxtaposed with Navidson’s deterioration in the documentary, all the while through the lens of this dead man named Zampanò who, somehow, made all this up. Or, even scarier, believed it was all real. With every page of House of Leaves, the voices are decreasing in stability and reliability which, in turn, makes the reader increasingly unsettled.

The film at the heart of House of Leaves has a lot in common with The Blair Witch Project. (Photo: Lionsgate)
The film at the heart of House of Leaves has a lot in common with The Blair Witch Project. (Photo: Lionsgate)

As a novel, House of Leaves is even more complicated and awesome than its narrative threads. Danielewski uses the medium of print like a film director, visually manipulating the reader. Different fonts represent different points of view. Margins become the author’s frame as some pages have every single inch filled all the way to the edges while other pages bear only a single word or sentence with the rest blank.

Some text is upside down, diagonal, or even bleeding through the pages. The word “house” is always in blue. At times you need to read a few pages ahead as one narrator, then jump back to pick up the other one. In a way, it almost feels like a comic book in how the page layouts dictate how you read and digest the story.

The purpose of all this is to elicit a deeper emotional experience of the material. It disrupts the usual pace at which one would typically read a novel, creating a varying flow. Flipping quickly through 20 pages because there’s barely a sentence on each feels completely different than spending 10 minutes on a single page because the writing is so small and dense. It draws clear attention to one accentuated detail, obscuring others in a fog of stacked text. Danielewski frustrates and engages the reader just by messing with print.

There are chapters that end mid-sentence and pick up several chapters later, forcing you to go back to revisit where exactly things left off. Sometimes, huge pieces of information are simply not there, either with literal missing text or an incomplete footnote, which are either credited to Johnny not being able to find Zampanò’s work or Zampanò himself redacting it. All these mysterious gaps and concentrated stories add new layers to the experience of reading House of Leaves, more than a typical novel.

Two pages from House of Leaves showing examples of print style. (Photo: iPhone/Random House)
Two pages from House of Leaves showing examples of print style. (Photo: iPhone/Random House)

And yet, while all of that certainly makes House of Leaves unique and noteworthy, none of it is my favourite part of the novel. Danielewski wrote this when I was still studying film at New York University. There I would write deep-dive research papers about movies with all kinds of footnotes and citations. So, for me, House of Leaves’ dissection of The Navidson Record didn’t just feel familiar, it was inspiring. It read like the best film theory paper ever written. Zampanò constructs so many distinct angles, interpretations, insights, and points of view that reading them after 20 years writing about film professionally, I couldn’t help but yearn for a time when people wrote about the text of a film itself, not what would be coming next.

Never in House of Leaves does someone ask about a sequel to The Navidson Record, a subject which drives so much modern film discussion. I yearned to live in Zampanò’s imagination where The Navidson Record is real and people care to analyse it so passionately and with such specificity. Where people write long essays and academic papers about a single moment, analysing character and filmmaking intention instead of SEO grabs like “House of Leaves Ending, Explained.” And yet Zampanò cites hundreds of these deep dives, the “existence” of which is almost comical through the window of modern film journalism.

But you know what? A film like this, fictional or not, deserves it. Because make no mistake, the tale woven by The Navidson Record is absolutely incredible. I won’t go into full details here but the book goes through the film. The exploration of that impossible space is terrifying, enlightening, and unforgettable. With each new revelation of the film, I couldn’t wait to read more about it. But when a chapter comes up that’s more Johnny narrating, I found myself a little frustrated. I wanted to get back to the story of the film. By the end of the novel though, it becomes obvious that neither of these stories could exist without the other and that Danielewski disperses information between the narrators as another technique to mess with your head.

Cover of House of Leaves (Image: Random House)
Cover of House of Leaves (Image: Random House)

I know what you might be thinking: “I wish they’d make this into a movie.” Over the years, it’s been discussed a lot and in the years following my initial reading, I agreed. Danielewski even wrote several scripts for how he wanted to see his book adapted for television — and they’re radically different from the book itself but no less compelling. However, reading House of Leaves this second time I realised a few things.

You can’t make a movie that would encompass everything this book does. There’s just too much going on. And if someone were to do the obvious and strip out just The Navidson Record sections of this book and make that part into a real movie, it would drastically hurt the story. The joy of the story is that you’re not just reading a book, you’re also reading a movie and being challenged by both at the same time.

The fact that you can’t actually watch The Navidson Record is part of the power of House of Leaves. With each reading, you realise the novel is the only place you can find out what happens to the characters of the film. If you could just sit down and watch someone else’s filled-in vision of the disjointed narrative, it would definitely be cool, but it wouldn’t be as impactful.

House of Leaves is one of those works that makes you feel small before its brilliance, intimidated by its sheer imagination, inspired by the fact that something like it is possible. I’d urge you to read it and stick with it through the difficult parts. It’s well worth the reward and, maybe, in a few years, you too will revisit it again.

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