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House of Leaves

On a funhouse.


How many people living in the United States today are illiterate? Let us assume these people can read traffic signs and don’t have to mark their signature with an X, but overall they live in a world without text. Information comes to them in sound and images. This functional illiteracy does not put these individuals, who surely number in the millions and may constitute a majority, among the dumbest of the dumb. It was for centuries the natural state of humanity. The government of Turkey, within the memory of people now living, employed town criers to spread its edicts to villages where being able to read a newspaper was enough to make a man a café celebrity.

Mark Z. Danielewski can do a lot more than read a newspaper. He studied English at Yale under the poet John Hollander and then pursued a Master of Fine Arts at the University of Southern California’s prestigious School of Cinematic Arts, where he worked on an award-winning documentary about Jacques Derrida. After collecting his last academic degree in 1993, he began work on a horror novel that would take advantage of all his erudition. By the time it was published in 2000, it would be a horror novel to mark the end of the age of literacy.

House of Leaves is about a house that is bigger on the inside than the outside. Will Navidson, a photojournalist, moves his family to suburban Virginia in search of domestic bliss after a career spent in war zones. He starts to notice closets that weren’t there before. A door suddenly appears in the den leading to a hallway, a door, and then a branching labyrinth. Sometimes the labyrinth leads to a cavernous room with mile-high ceilings, sometimes to a spiral staircase going down, sometimes just to more hallways. Navidson brings in his brother and later a professional mountaineer to explore this labyrinth, which emits a curious growl. Is it a monster or just the house expanding and contracting?

The novel is presented as a collection of found texts. Our “editor,” Johnny Truant, is a tattoo artist in Los Angeles who comes into possession of a trunk of papers collected by a blind man known as Zampanò. The papers concern a film, The Navidson Record, depicting the exploration of the house and its inhabitants’ descent into homicidal madness. Johnny eventually concludes that the film never existed, but Zampanò’s book-length commentary cites hundreds of academic articles that treat the film and its characters as real, such as “Isaiah Rosen, PhD., Flawed Performances: A Consideration of the Actors in the Navidson Records (Baltimore: Eddie Hapax Press, 1995).”

There is another layer of metanarrative on top of this, which, when as a sixteen-year-old I came across House of Leaves in the local independent bookstore, was invigorating. The front jacket flap opens: “Years ago, when House of Leaves was first being passed around, it was nothing more than a badly bundled heap of paper, parts of which would occasionally surface on the Internet.”

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Helen Andrews is editor of the American Conservative and the author of Boomers: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster.