House of Leaves
House of Leaves is best known as a spooky horror story novel with some interesting page layouts and lots of vital footnotes and end notes with coded messages that is a difficult read.
It's just about none of those things.
The core of it is a dissertation of a found footage horror movie called The Navidson Record
, written by an old, blind man who calls himself Zampanó. This dissertation is sorted, annotated and assembled by a druggie loser called Johnny Truant. It is published and the book you're reading is the second edition with added notations and further notes the publishers requested from Truant.
This is as complicated as it ever gets. But don't worry, it gets much more tedious.
It starts in medias res with Johnny explaining to the reader how he happened upon Zampanó's notes. He works in a tattoo parlour assembling needles and spends all his free time going to clubs in LA with his drug dealer friend Lude, taking drugs, getting drunk and fucking random sluts.
One day, Lude calls Johnny at 3am because his old, blind neighbour that usually takes two little walks a day in the yard hasn't shown up. They expect him to have died but the house owner is too much of a pussy to open the door.
So they do, find Zampanó dead by natural causes and that's that.
The next day when his body has been cleared by the authorities they rummage around a bit in his apartment where Johnny notes a few things. First off, the apartment is hermetically sealed off to let no air in. Secondly, besides where Zampanó lied dead face down on the wooden floor are four very deep claw marks. Lastly, every single piece of paper, even the back of postage stamps, is written on and there's a chest full with papers, all absolutely covered in notes.
Johnny takes the chest home and feels compelled to assemble them for whatever reason. He tells us that he wishes he'd never have found them.
The Navidson Record 1
From here on out until the very end of the book we're now reading Zampanó's notes. They are annotated with footnotes by Zampanó, Johnny and sometimes the editors.
It is an indepth dissertation in academic style of a series of found footage movies made by Will Navidson, an award-winning photo reporter.
Will Navidson, his model wife Karen and his two kids buy a house in rural Virginia to fix their marriage of having lived apart due to their jet setting lives. While Karen wants to focus on being a house wife, Will keeps himself busy by making their quaint life into a documentary.
That is the plot of the described movie. Will Navidson installs cameras in every room, Paranormal Activity style, and both get cameras to film stuff with and keep a video diary.
After two little teasers on VHS, both only a few minutes long dealing with an optical illusion hallway, the actual movie is released in cinemas, produced by the Weinstein Company (that aged well) and published by Miramax to much critical acclaim.
Zampanó's dissertation analyses this movie, the public reception and many academic works about the movie. The only problem is that the movie doesn't actually exist.
The structure of the book
So here is how the whole thing is structured and why some may find it a difficult read.
The main part is Zampanó's dissertation of this movie that doesn't exist. We have the movie described to us in chronological order. Zampanó very often goes on long tangents analysing every small bit of symbology, film-making, public and academic reaction to the scene and his own commentary on each.
His footnotes often go into even more detail on his pointless tangents, mostly with meaningless lists, completely made up sources or overly-technical explanations of concepts.
Johnny's footnotes are also in chronological order as he starts assembling all this nonsense Zampanó wrote. Sometimes he comments on things to further elaborate, sometimes with speculation about Zampanó's life and why he wrote this and sometimes just to ramble on himself to tell us about his own life.
Johnny knows that the movie doesn't exist. He also follows Zampanó's sources and sees that they are all made up. Further, he knows that Zampanó was fully aware of all this. He had hired young women read him stuff, as he was blind and wanted some social interaction, and had them write many of the notes.
His tone is consistent throughout the entire book. He doesn't appear to be mad but, for some reason, is obsessed with writing this dissertation of this movie he made up. He knows it's all bullshit, knows all his sources are bullshit, knows all his lists and ramblings are completely pointless.
He remains calm throughout the entire writing and seems to have fun writing up all this nonsense. We will never get an explanation why he did it. He doesn't say, Johnny doesn't find out and none of the women he had help him write parts of it do.
Johnny goes mad throughout the course of the book. Introduction apart, he starts off as a club-going druggie with no goal or aim in his life. He eventually becomes an obsessed shut-in with zero social contact that does nothing but assembly Zampanó's notes, looks up his sources and does research about the house. He becomes paranoid and starts to see something lurking in the darkness. Eventually, he sets out to find the house in Virginia, thinking there must be something to Zampanó's story and that he'll find whatever will help him against his increasing paranoia.
The Navidson Record 2
So, the horror movie that doesn't exist is the main story.
It starts as Will Navidson buys a quaint house in Virginia. To keep himself busy he wants to document how a family settles into a calm life. He installs all the cameras and whatnot and everything is fine. The family go to a family wedding in Seattle and when they return there is suddenly a door with a glass knob on the upper floor that connects the children's bedroom with the parent's bedroom that wasn't there before. The two rooms are now connected by a 1.2m long, door-wide hallway that has almost entirely black, smooth stone walls.
Karen is rather disturbed by this, Will is intrigued. The police don't have much to say about it as that's just odd but since nothing was stolen they fuck off.
Will invites his brother and a mutual friend to make better measurements. A hallway suddenly appears in the living room. The hallway grows. Will has to promise his wife not to go in there. He does so anyway at night, discovers it branches off, almost gets lost as it also changes but makes it back out.
They hire a group of three to explore the now very long and branching off hallway.
The group of three discover a massive stairwell that is seemingly endless. They return and pack for a week long expedition.
On day nine, Will, his brother and the friend set out to go on a rescue mission.
Turns out one of the group went mad and shot one of the others. Bla bla bla, they eventually make it all out except for mad shooting man.
They want to leave the house, the floor in the living room lowers into the void, drama drama all make it out except for Will's bro that gets smashed by the walls and dropped into the void.
Karen's all fucked up from that experience, Will works on putting together all the footage, living with his friend.
Months later, Will and Karen want to get back together. Will promises in a letter but says he has to go back to the house one last time.
So he fucks off. Karen and Will's friend go to the house. The upstairs door is gone, the hallway is gone and it's now a normal house again.
Karen decides to wait there for Will.
Meanwhile, Will had packed for two weeks. He went into the hallway on a bike with a trailer and is cruising through the hallways. No matter what direction he takes, it's always going downhill slightly. He makes a couple of hundred miles of progress a day.
Karen lives in the house like normal, waiting for the door to appear again. Will has been gone for over a month now.
Will almost drops down a sudden, gaping hole the size of a canyon. There's a tiny alcove with a door along the canyon. He enters it and finds a sideways staircase. He decides to rest for the day. When he wakes up it's the right side up again. At the top is a small room with a ladder. Up there he sees a wall with a window. Up until now there were only doors, stairs and rooms down there. He goes through the window and ends up on a terrace surrounded by absolutely nothing. Turning around, the wall with the window has disappeared. He's now just on a slab inside a void.
Karen thinks she heard Will.
Will just sits around on the slab in the void. His reserves are running out. He starts reading the book he took with him. It's House of Leaves. He runs out of all light. The slab eventually also disappears. He's now falling in the void but can't tell in what direction.
In the bedroom, all the recorded film appears on the bed. Karen discovers it and anxiously puts in a tape to watch it. Behind her the wall disappears. She eventually turns around, notices it and steps into the void. The wall appears again and she's gone.
Karen finds Will, almost dead. She takes him in his arms, closes her eyes and when she opens them again they are in their garden and the house is gone.
So a basic bitch spoopy story. At no point is it scary.
We now drop in again with Johnny at the point in time from the beginning. He turned to the hobo life to try and find the house. He didn't. He goes to a bar where some band plays. A song "The 5 1/2 minute hallway" catches his attention. It's the name of one of the VHS tapes released as a teaser for The Navidson Record. He asks them how they know it and they tell him they do from the online book by Zampanó, edited by Johnny Truant. He doesn't tell them he is Johnny. He doesn't remember publishing the book online, just leaving the chest in his abandoned apartment.
He goes into the sunset and realizes that the monster in the darkness he was afraid of was the false memory of his crazy mother trying to choke him to death as a child. The book ends here.
There are letters from his mother written from the crazy home in the end notes. She told him she was brought there because she tried to strangle him. She's batshit. During the course of assembling notes he's been in the nuthouse visiting her. She passed away. Doesn't add much to the story, honestly.
Conclusion and Assessment
So, one can speculate quite a bit about this book. There's a strong argument to be made that Johnny Truant doesn't exist. One could go into the details of that. Truant claims to have run away from his foster family at age twelve and lived in Alaska working for a salmon fishing company. Escaping a shipwreck he went to Europe and lived there as a hobo.
There he supposedly wrote poems that are in the end notes. However, those don't fit Truant, who's an idiot that only sometimes goes into try-hard poetic, stream of conscience ramblings about some stripper's tits. They start off in Poland, which is where Zampanó is from.
In one of the coded message letters to Johnny when he was still a child there is a (meaningless) message to Zampanó as well, way before Johnny knew about him.
So a common theory is that all of it is Zampanó's work.
I've got a better one. It's all meaningless bullshit written by a total hack trying to be clever.
The guy wanted to write a Blair Witch style spoopy story. It turned out to be a very shallow spooky short story. So he released it online with all the added shit, somehow got it published and added even more shit and had his stupid sister make music for it to add even more shit. He added five layers of clutter and bullshit to make it all seem 5deep7u to absolute imbeciles.
Well, congratulations to that as it worked!
Now, of course none of the characters actually exist. It's a novel. We don't need to talk about that.
My point is that within the world of the novel no character can exist. The only possible answer would be that only Zampanó exists, who made up Johnny Truant, his mother and entire backstory and even all of his story. So even Zampanó can't be some blind man hoarding pages of nonsensical drivel. The narrator is so unreliable and the book itself is referenced in the book and the author's sister's band is referenced in it as well. For all intents and purposes, the narrator is the author
and there's nothing more to it.
If you make your narrator within the novel your actual real life self with the only conclusion that absolutely everything in the book, even in-universe, is fabricated by the narrator aka the author, including the supposed editor's notes, then there's nothing left to suspend your disbelief with.
House of Leaves is in universe
an online self-published novel by Mark Z. Danielewski with the print issue you're holding being the second edition with shit added by Mark Z. Danielewski.
The last time I was so mad about a work of fiction was when I watched The Holy Mountain by Alejandro Jodorowsky.
But at the very least that one had the decency to not try to ruse you and "just"
openly went "lol there is no point this is a movie".
House of Leaves isn't just gimmicky, boring, tedious and very badly-written by a hack. It's also self-admittedly pointless.
It isn't complicated or deep either. You'd have to be an impressionable moron to not reach the obvious conclusion. I suppose there are millions of those and most have read this book.