House of Leaves [Book Review]

A 700-page creepypasta.

Author: Mark Z. Danielewski

Release Date: March 7, 2000

Page Count: 709

Price: about $22

REA Reaction

House of Leaves is an expansive work of experimental fiction, sandwiched between the covers of a book. Unlike a traditional novel, it unfolds in nonlinear fashion, with multiple threads running concurrently and turning in on themselves like a labyrinth.

The layers of the story have markedly different tones. At the core of it all is a compelling documentary-style film about a house that’s bigger on the inside. Outside that is a relatively stoic academic critique of the film. The outermost layer, told through ballooning footnotes, follows the downward spiral of the man stitching the entire project together.

Front cover of book with text "House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski"

House of Leaves is far from a beach novel or breezy weekend read. It’s disorienting and challenging, due to its structure, its length, and some of its content. (Note that it includes a fair amount of graphic violence and explicit sex scenes.) More than anything else, it felt like digging into an extra-long creepypasta.

If you’re looking for puzzles to solve, House of Leaves includes codes and Easter eggs in a few places. They’re not presented as challenges, but rather as another tool in its overflowing narrative toolbox.

The heft of the book and some of the design choices may seem intimidating or gimmicky at first glance. You may want to page through first to decide if you’re up for the journey. But if you can embrace its more demanding qualities, House of Leaves is an engrossing and impressive effort.

Who is this for?

  • Horror buffs
  • Fans of experimental literature
  • Readers who don’t mind adult content

Why Read?

  • Immersive reading experience
  • Unconventional, layered storytelling
  • To say you finished a 700-page book

Story

Johnny Truant, a troubled Hollywood tattoo shop assistant, discovers an unfinished manuscript in a recently deceased man’s home and becomes obsessed with recompiling it. Interspersed between chapters of the original author’s writing about an unsettling documentary film that may or may not have existed, Johnny’s diaristic footnotes describe the disturbing effects the project is having on his sanity.

Bottom of page 4 with footnotes: one in a typewriter font citing Paradise Lost, one with a different font signed "The Editors."

Structure

House of Leaves is a novel that’s presented as a multilayered work constructed by two unreliable narrators and packaged by the editors. At the center is author Zampanò’s longform analysis of the movie The Navidson Record, with plenty of footnotes and commentary from sources both real and fictional. Johnny’s story accompanies the original material as additional footnotes, and editor’s notes occasionally comment on all of the above. The back of the book contains an index and appendices with further documents related to both authors.

Adding to the chaos, in some chapters the text is displayed in unusual ways—sideways, upside-down, contorted into various shapes to mirror the story. The full-color version also renders certain words or passages in different colors.

Book pages 570 and 571, displaying photos of three envelopes covered in black-and-white drawings and notes.

Gameplay

Despite a handful of hidden messages woven into the book, House of Leaves is a novel first and foremost, though an unconventional one. The challenge comes from following two simultaneous stories while keeping an eye on thematic connections and clues to which parts of the story could possibly be true.

The occasional use of codes strengthens the feeling of exploration more than it enhances the actual story. The added complexity echoes the story’s theme of fractal expansiveness.

Analysis

➕ The introduction grounds the story before things start getting confusing. At times it reaches through the page, almost breaking the fourth wall. It’s an effective entry point to the project.

❓ House of Leaves is intimidating. It offers pages of detailed academic analysis and multiple ways to traverse its branching footnotes. A lot of these details (like academic citations or long lists of names) don’t demand scrutiny, but create the feeling of scanning a real academic text. It’s not so daunting when you realize you don’t have to read it like a regular book.

➕ The varying fonts made it easier to follow the different storylines, and the styling and color changes broke up the text. The index is helpful for tracking down references you half remember from earlier in the book…and it also contains mysteries of its own.

A book page with different areas of text reading across, upside down, and sideways.

➕ I particularly enjoyed the central layer, The Navidson Record, as a scary story about a menacing house. It’s easy to imagine it being a theatrical release in real life. 

➖ In the outer layer, Johnny is at times intellectual, at times crude. His focus on sex and drugs and his objectification of women made it harder for me to get into his story. A couple of violent moments were especially hard to stomach, and I finished the book wondering what they added to the story.

➕ Overall, as a narrative experience, House of Leaves is just plain impressive. After a couple of chapters, paging through it felt less like traditional reading and more like osmosis. The fact that this experience of absorption mirrors the book’s story feels like magic.

House of Leaves examines themes of trauma and recovery, and explores writing as challenge, construction project, and catharsis, among other heavy topics. It gave me a lot to think about.

➕/➖ In my experience at least, the secret messages didn’t add much to the story and there was no eureka moment after decoding them. However, there’s still the pleasure of scouring the internet for details you may have missed.

Tips For Reading

There’s no wrong way to approach House of Leaves, so don’t be afraid to flip ahead if prompted, or even skip a section if you feel the need. 

There are a couple of especially disturbing moments in the footnotes. Considering the unreliability of the narrator helped me get through these scenes.

Making notes in the margins is not just acceptable, but a fun way to make your mark on a copy of the book for any future readers.

Buy your copy of House of Leaves, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

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