House of Leaves: The Trials of the Labyrinth

Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves is a peculiar beast. Upon the completion of my very first read-through of the notorious novel, it was quickly and appropriately placed among my private collection of books, that is the ones which I am inclined to treat as some of my most prized possessions. In just over 500 pages, Danielewski succeeded in entrapping me in the labyrinthine structure of his triple-narrative tale that pulled me in and refused to let go, and that’s disregarding the nearly 200 pages of appendixes and extra content found at the back of the tome. Few books have ever captivated me in such an elegant manner as this.

Where does one even begin with House of Leaves? There are so many layers of complex narrative to be explored in any fruitful analysis. There is the story of the Navidsons, a family which moves into a house only to discover that it is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. There is The Navidson Record, a documentary supposedly filmed by the father of the family Will Navidson as the family attempts to uncover the secrets of the house. There is House of Leaves, a scholarly analysis of The Navidson Record written by the blind Zampano which analyzes the documentary in intricate detail while sourcing countless individuals in numerous footnotes scattered throughout the novel. Finally, there is the tale of Johnny Truant, a wanna-be tattoo artist who discovers the scattered writings of the recently deceased Zampano and attempts to piece them together into a single coherent work while presenting his own story through footnotes. Each of these layers present so many discussions in their own right, and it is my opinion that hundreds of pages could be dedicated to analyzing the entirety of Danielewski’s literary debut.

It’s no wonder that an Idiot’s Guide to House of Leaves and a forum for discussing the novel still exist to this day, despite the book now being sixteen years old. So many people continue to discover the book for the first time, almost immediately being ensnared by its mysteries. Shirts and tattoos can be found presenting quotes from the novel, of which — I can assure you — there are a great number of fantastic examples. Perhaps the most common one I’ve seen is the infamous dedication line at the beginning of the novel, which so very bluntly tells the reader, “This is not for you.” At the end of the day, House of Leaves seems less of a novel and more of a phenomenon.

But what I myself have always found so interesting is just how effectively the book succeeded in disturbing me. Even from its earliest moments, Danielewski creates an atmosphere of impending dread. You aren’t entirely sure of what’s looming on the horizon, yet you’re acutely aware of some primordial instinct telling you to beware. When strange things begin to slip through the cracks, its to powerful effect; one of the most well known sections of the book comes from Johnny Truant on pages 26 and 27.

To get a better idea try this: focus on these words, and whatever you do don’t let your eyes wander past the perimeter of this page. Now imagine just beyond your peripheral vision, maybe behind you, maybe to the side of you, maybe even in front of you, but right where you can’t see it, something is quietly closing in on you, so quiet in fact you can only hear it as silence. Find those pockets without sound. That’s where it is. Right at this moment. But don’t look. Keep your eyes here. Now take a deep breath. Go ahead, take an even deeper one. Only this time as you exhale try to imagine how fast it will happen, how hard it’s gonna hit you, how many times it will stab your jugular with its teeth or are they nails?, don’t worry, that particular detail doesn’t matter, because before you have time to process that you should be moving, you should be running, you should at the very least be flinging up your arms-you sure as hell should be getting rid of this book-you won’t have time to even scream.

Don’t look.

I didn’t.

Of course I looked.

I looked so fucking fast I should of ended up wearing one of those neck braces for whiplash.

I don’t believe in cursing in my writing unless it’s absolutely necessary, but god damn is that spooky.

Of course things grow worse from there as a doorway appears in the Navidson family’s living room leading into a hallway that shouldn’t be there at all. An initial exploration reveals a massive interior to the house never before seen, one that shifts its layout without warning. This, combined with a low rumbling noise that may either be the effect of the house shifting or an unknown creature stalking its halls, prompts Will Navidson to bring in outsiders to explore and investigate the house. It is through this investigation that the labyrinthine nature of the house is revealed.

As the situation grows worse for the Navidson family, so too does it grow worse for the reader. Readers who have slowly become accustomed to the layout of the novel — with its constant shift between narratives via well-placed footnotes — will quickly find that to be thrown out the window when they reach Chapter 9. It’s at this point that Danielewski’s artistry truly comes into being as he begins to take full advantage of the medium with which he’s working. Mimicking the labyrinthine nature of the very house he’s writing about, Danielewski opens his ninth chapter with Footnote X on page 107, which he then references again twice on page 114, once on page 115, and once on page 123. He also labels the proper text of the chapter as Footnote K, which itself is referenced once on page 114, once on page 144, and once on page 151. This is the reader’s introduction to the labyrinthine nature of the book’s formatting as Danielewski forces the reader to make choices regarding when, where and how to follow the branching paths of narrative. Those paths may split, twist and turn, with some leading the reader in circles and others leading the reader to dead ends, much like the paths of a labyrinth.

What’s worse is that the layout shifts dramatically on page 119 with the introduction of a box with its own separate text. See if you can follow me with this. Footnote 146 is referenced at the end of the top paragraph of page 120. The footnote itself begins in the left margin of this same page and continues in each left margin until page 134, at the end of which it references Footnote 147. That footnote begins in the right margin of page 135 and works its way backwards to page 121. In the end, it references Footnote 148 in the top left corner of page 121, which further references Exhibit One all the way forward at page 530.

The situation doesn’t get any better as the layout continues to shift. By the time the reader reaches Chapter 10, fewer and fewer words begin to occupy each page. Where on the page these words can be found also seems to shift constantly, with some pages having their text at the very top and others having their text at the very bottom. Where the reader was forced to deal with feelings of claustrophobia due to the cramped text of Chapter 9, Chapter 10 forces the reader to deal with feelings of agoraphobia. Really pushing home the anxiety of this situation is the highest point of tension in this chapter, which begins on page 193 with a bullet fired off. From here, each page from page 194 to page 205 possesses anywhere from one to five words, and that’s it. A few brief pages of greater text give the reader a small buffer before the action picks up once again, forcing the reader to rapidly flip through pages The reader is forced to flip through page after page at a quick pace, terrified of what’s about to happen as pages 214 through 238 possess only a small handful of words scattered about here and there.

Danielewski’s use of commanding his medium to tell his story in a way that’s entirely unique to novels reminds me of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ 1986 comic Watchmen. They too wished to take full advantage of their medium, and in the quest to do so they found storytelling methods that are entirely unique to comics. These methods had less to do with the story itself and instead had to do with how the story was presented. For example, almost the complete entirety of Watchmen uses evenly spaced nine panel pages. Such a layout creates a focus for each page, something that serves to really enhance the narrative to powerful effect, and when one of those rare occurrences came in which this structure was broken, it was done so for a reason. Scenes like Dr. Jonathan Osterman being completely obliterated months prior to his return as Doctor Manhattan are made more powerful when the image breaks the mold and is given the width of not one but three panels.

That’s very much what Danielewski is attempting to accomplish with House of Leaves. The novel isn’t just about the story being told, but it’s also about how the story is being told. To fully grasp the significance of this though, one must consider the nature of the impromptu editor of the novel. For starters, Johnny Truant wastes no time in revealing that he’s altered the contents of Zampano’s analysis of The Navidson Record on page 16, after discussing his own issues with no running hot water as the Navidson family’s water heater stops working:

Now I’m sure you’re wondering something. Is it just coincidence that this cold water predicament of mine also appears in this chapter?

Not at all. Zampano only wrote “heater.” The word “water” back there — I added that.

Now there’s an admission, eh?

This admission is of major significance. For starters, it establishes Truant as an unreliable narrator whose own stories must be carefully considered. It reveals that nothing about the Navidson family’s story is sacred and that anything the reader is subjected to may have been altered by Truant. What’s most significant, however, is that it reveals Truant to truly be the one behind any and all of the novel’s strange elements, including the book’s peculiar formatting and labyrinthine structure. On page 134, the Editors state in Footnote 165, “Mr. Truant refused to reveal whether the following bizarre textual layout is Zampano’s or his own.” Yet as the Three Attic Whalestoe Institute Letters (found on pages 586 through 639) reveal, Zampano’s House of Leaves isn’t the only piece of text with an alternative format; the delusional writings of Truant’s mother also take on strange formats at times, which gives credence to the suggestion that Truant is the one behind the novel’s unique look.

Yet what of it? What is the significance of such a structure? To understand this, the labyrinth’s relationship with the characters must be considered. Many individuals referenced by Zampano are said to believe that the house is influenced by the psyches of the individuals who enter it. As the fictional Ruby Dahl states on page 165, “the house, the halls, and the rooms all become the self — collapsing, expanding, tilting, closing, but always in perfect relation to the mental state of the individual.” Where Holloway is unsure whether or not the massive staircase has a bottom, Will Navidson is certain there is one, resulting in Holloway never finding a bottom after days of climbing down and Navidson finding one in mere minutes. While Navidson is certain that the sounds made by the house are the result of its shifting interior, Holloway is convinced that a monster lurks its halls, and as a result is given all the evidence he needs to suggest that a monster exists despite it never being there. As Will and Karen, the mother of his children, grow apart emotionally, so too do they grow apart physically when the house finally swallows Navidson whole. Even Truant, in referencing his own troubled psyche, compares it to the house on Ash Tree Lane when he states on page 49:

Inside me, a long dark hallway already caressed the other music of a single word, and what’s worse, despite the amazements of chemicals, continued to grow.

Alongside this, the symbolism of the labyrinth must be considered. Interpretations vary, but a traditional meaning in a labyrinth may relate to one’s spiritual journey of self-discovery, travelling into their own being before returning to the outside world. As one walks the paths of the labyrinth, they are made to explore that which resides within themselves. The halls and rooms of such a place are shaped by their perception, so that they may learn from themselves before exiting the labyrinth. Of course, there is always the risk that they may become trapped within the labyrinth and never find a means of escape. Such is what almost happens with Navidson during his final exploration of the house, during which he becomes hopelessly lost and devoid of all hope of ever escaping, trapped by his internalized grief and introverted ways. Meanwhile, Truant also becomes lost in the labyrinth of his own construction, aimlessly traveling the streets of Los Angeles on a wild binge of booze, drugs, and senseless sex. In both cases, these characters are nearly destroyed by their personal demons. It’s only in the end after the trials they have faced that they find absolution: Karen succeeds in pulling Navidson from the labyrinth of his design, and the two become inseparable; Truant comes to terms with his personal demons and appears to find peace with them once and for all.

How then does this relate to the reader? Although interpretations vary from person to person, it’s my own belief that Danielewski has presented a labyrinth to the reader which he expects us to wander through. Whether we go through it once and never think of it again, or whether we find ourselves revisiting it several times later, it is a labyrinth in which we are meant to be lost for a time before finding the exit, and during that time we are meant to reflect upon ourselves through the characters and the events that surround them. By seeing the demons that haunt those characters, we are meant to reflect upon our own demons and come to terms with them. House of Leaves is the closest thing we shall come close to touching with our own hands that is a physical manifestation of the labyrinths of our psyche, and this is no major secret. A poem on page 563 reveals the final relationship between the house on Ash Tree Lane and the book we hold in our hands:

Little solace comes
to those who grieve
when thoughts keep drifting
as walls keep shifting
and this great blue world of ours
seems a house of leaves

moments before the wind.

It’s worth knowing that the pages of a book are more technically known as leaves. Therefore, a “house of leaves” is a book. House of Leaves is a mirror by which we may reflect upon ourselves, a labyrinth through which to explore our own. That is the true beauty of what Danielewski has created; he has taken a medium and used it to present something more than itself, something that is truly bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.

If you truly wish to know more, then I urge you to purchase and read House of Leaves. Everything I’ve said here is valid for me because it is my own interpretation, but yours will be just as valid; much like how I feel we are meant to reflect upon ourselves through the book, all personal interpretations upon the book are made valid thanks to Danielewski’s clever choice to devoid the book of any universally “correct” interpretation. It is a labyrinth that shifts to the psyche of the reader.

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