'House' turns into a labyrinth of terror
By Deirdre R. Schwiesow, Special for USA TODAY
Mark Z. Danielewski
List price: $19.95 trade paperback, $40 hardcover
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
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
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.