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03/29/00- Updated 09:46 PM ET



'House' turns into a labyrinth of terror

By Deirdre R. Schwiesow, Special for USA TODAY

House of Leaves

House of Leaves
Mark Z. Danielewski

709 pp.
List price: $19.95 trade paperback, $40 hardcover

Buy It Now

House of Leaves, the creepy, clever debut novel by Mark Z. Danielewski, is not what it seems. Actually a work of fiction, the book masquerades as a critical exegesis of a documentary horror film, annotated by the L.A. tattoo artist who finds the manuscript and is haunted by its tale.

Johnny Truant, who spends his time away from the tattoo parlor taking drugs and engaging in sordid, graphically described sexual encounters, is summoned one night by his friend to the apartment of an old man, Zampano, who has just died.

There Johnny finds Zampano's legacy: an essay about a film called The Navidson Record, which tells the story of a family that moves to a house in the Virginia countryside, only to discover that the interior of the house is expanding while the size of the exterior remains unchanged.

Filmmaker Will Navidson, his companion, Karen Green, and their two children had hoped the house would provide a retreat; instead, it becomes a nightmare after a hallway mysteriously appears between two bedrooms.

Navidson, who has been filming the family's daily life, is compelled to document this phenomenon and the ensuing appearance of another hallway that grows increasingly cavernous. Rather than do the sensible thing and move out, he launches a full-scale exploration of the constantly morphing hallway.

As Johnny follows Zampano's heavily footnoted essay about the film, he begins to face his own demons in an additional series of footnotes. The manuscript triggers painful recollections of his own past and ruminations on his increasingly bizarre present, and he is sucked into a haze of terror that parallels the terror of the Navidsons.

Danielewski, brother of singer/songwriter Poe (whose upcoming album features several songs relating to the book), spent 10 years on House of Leaves, publishing it first on his Web site, encouraging reader feedback. The result teeters on the line between genius and self-indulgence.

He wraps the two primary stories in an intricate web of footnotes, academic digressions and convoluted layouts that mirror the maze of the Navidson house. As the exploration of the house gets more confusing, so does the book: Text runs backward and upside down and breaks in the middle of words, and even the footnotes' footnotes are footnoted.

Even more confusing is that while many of the references are fictional, others are real.

Not all readers will have the patience to work their way through the Talmudic multiplicity of references and commentary, but the genuine spookiness of the Navidson story, combined with Danielewski's slyly humorous cultural commentary, makes it a worthwhile exercise.

A new Web site for the book (www.houseofleaves.com) is under construction. Ultimately, the site will offer a multimedia complement to the book, which has already gone into a second printing.

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