When most of us think of a monster, we tend to visualize the same stereotypical markers: four-legged beasts and shadow-people with claws like blades, creatures of inhuman sizes or with no shape at all, supernatural beings that can kill without moving or those who simply move through the world as if its laws do not apply to them.
What most of us do not picture, though, is a place.
Mark Z. Danielewski’s mixed-media horror novel “House of Leaves” is unique in this sense, crafting a monster not just out of place but out of the characters’ expectations and, perhaps even more interestingly, the reader’s. “House of Leaves” is a hard book to describe. On the surface, it follows a family that moves into a house only to discover that it is larger on the inside than it is on the outside. While at first only a tiny difference of three-quarters of an inch is noticed, the problem quickly expands to include an intricate set of seemingly endless tunnels under the house. As the characters attempt to explore the labyrinthine maze, typical horror hijinks ensue (such as the unexplained disappearance of the family pets or mysterious sounds coming from the walls).
There are numerous stories layered within “House of Leaves,” and to only acknowledge the surface narrative would not do justice to the elaborate storytelling at play here. The distinct, interactive formatting of this novel plays an essential part in its story, crafting not only a memorable reading experience but a profoundly haunting one, too.
The main story is presented through the academic writings of a strange, cryptic author (referred to only as Zampanò) about a movie following the family and their experiences while living in the house. The story implies that this movie, while largely unknown by general audiences, has attracted an almost cult-like following in the academic sphere, resulting in numerous academic papers about the house, which are referenced throughout the text. Among these articles, an ongoing scholarly debate over the authenticity of the film persists. Thus, the main story is made into an urban legend within the book itself; readers are just as unsure as the characters are about whether the events at the house actually take place or if the film is an elaborate project created by the main character of the movie, Will Navidson. Alongside this book-within-a-book are footnotes from Johnny Truant, the man who is presumably guiding us through the novel while experiencing an emotional breakdown, which we witness through his annotations as the story progresses.
If you’re confused by now, don’t worry: that’s the point. The formatting of the book makes it clear that readers are meant to spiral at the same time as the characters (and that not everything about the house will or should make sense to us, just as is true for those within the novel). During the main descent into the house, the annotations do not just become less logical, but literally begin twisting into and jumping across the page. Following these footnotes — and in turn, following the narrative — serves to repeatedly confuse and frustrate readers in the same way the characters are confused and frustrated by their surroundings while exploring the underbelly of the house. By forcing readers to interact with the text through its annotations and devolving form, “House of Leaves” ensures that the reader’s journey mirrors the characters’ and creates a feeling of shared experience between the two.
Choosing to ignore or skip these elements of the story denies readers the visceral experience Danielewski intends for them. The author goes to great pains to make “House of Leaves” feel as authentic as possible, from leaving his own name off the title page in lieu of Zampanò’s and Johnny’s to having fictional editors write notes to the reader throughout the text as if this were a published manuscript from the world of “House of Leaves” rather than a fictional work. Beginning with the introduction, Danielewski practically dares readers to consider the validity of his story by having Johnny beg them to consider otherwise. Even Zampanò admits: “They say truth stands the test of time. I can think of no greater comfortant than knowing this document failed such a test.” The possibility that this book could be an artifact from the “House of Leaves” universe these characters exist in, however outrageous or unrealistic that thought, is planted in readers’ heads from page one.
There are numerous Easter eggs and hidden pieces of symbolism scattered throughout the text; to decipher them all, some would argue, is impossible. Yet, just as there is a cult-like following for the film in the story, there is an online fanbase dedicated to uncovering and discussing the secrets within “House of Leaves.” Through this community, the horror of Danielewski’s novel has transcended print and found its place among similar Alternate Reality Games (ARGs), found footage films and urban legends. While these may all appear to be unrelated at first glance, these modes of storytelling are tied together by their inclusion of the reader as a character within the story’s world. Each form of media is conscientious of the role the reader plays in experiencing and interpreting the story, and many ask the viewer at the very least to consider that the story could be true, if not outright interact with it as if it truly were. The sensation, then, of consuming one of these stories is akin to feeling a presence at the foot of one’s bed, as the possibility always exists in the back of your mind: This could be me. I could be next.
The horror of being turned into a character is one that is intimately explored in “House of Leaves.” What the house itself actually is could be debated, but one possible (and my personal) interpretation of it is that the house is an omniscient being that mirrors and reproduces the fears of those who enter. Take for instance the fact that the house targets a woman named Karen, who “suffers from crippling claustrophobia,” by trapping her in a closet and stranding her in darkness in an attempt to prevent the family from leaving the house. Or, more generally, how each person seems to recall the horrors of the house slightly differently, reflecting their own unique backgrounds and psyches. It appears from these examples that while the house itself may be the larger monster at play here, it seems to create smaller, individualized “monsters” for each of its residents. To be a character in this world, then, means that the reader is able to insert their own expectations and fears in the story, thereby creating their own monster within its pages.
Making the setting the monster is certainly an interesting choice on Danielewski’s part, but it is by allowing the reader into the world that he strikes gold. We all bring our own experiences and perspectives to the table whenever we consume art. By not creating a clearly defined monster as many other horror stories do, Danielewski all but guarantees that readers will find something to be afraid of in his story. Because just as in all modes of storytelling that invite the reader to play along, “House of Leaves” gives readers the space to let their own monsters loose.
Daily Arts Contributor Camille Nagy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.