Tuesday, December 10, 2013

House of Leaves - Book Review

Trying to review this book in full is a difficult task. House of Leaves is no ordinary book. There are so many layers to this piece of fiction (it is fiction, right?) that trying to dissect them all would keep me here for the rest of the month. The only thing I can do is try to sum up my experience with House of Leaves, one of the most unique - and ultimately terrifying - books I have ever read. 

After peeling back the layers enfolding House of Leaves, you find that the core of the book is about a house, the house on Ash Tree Lane. A photographer named Will Navidson moved into this house and set up cameras all over the place to try and do a documentary about his new life with his girlfriend, Karen, and his two children, Daisy and Chad. Soon after moving into the home, Navidson stumbles upon a terrifying reality - his house is bigger on the inside than the outside. What begins as less than an inch of extra space found within the house, quickly turns into an ever-growing interior that in no way matches its outside visage. Once the house has expanded within, a mysterious hallway is discovered by the children – an ever-evolving hallway that is at one time ten feet long, and at another, a dark hundred. As Navidson begins to investigate this strange anomaly, he finds that where the hallway should appear in the yard outside, it does not. This particularly horrifying and uncanny part of the documentary is titled "The Five and a Half Minute Hallway."

The book then proceeds to detail the expeditions Navidson – and other characters – embark on to find out what is in this hallway and why the house has this uncanny spacial anomaly, all while dealing with the effects this terrifying intrusion has on the Navidson clan. The fascinating thing about this book is the antagonist - the house. This isn't just a normal haunted house, this is a monstrous enigma that shakes the Navidson family - and those who attempt to help the Navidson family - to their core. Once one enters the dark hallway, they are subject to the house's somewhat demonic nature. Light does not exist inside the corridors of this other realm, neither do adornments, such as furniture, decorations, or even floor molding at the bottom of the walls. Within this strange abyss, one is met with a constantly shifting maze of blind corridors, doors that lead to infinity, and a constant growling of a creature - possibly the house itself - hiding in the dark, a presence that reminds me of Gmork from The Neverending Story (the film version).

While that is the core of House of Leaves, what falls under the most speculation throughout the book is the entirety of Navidson's video documentary. Titled, "The Navidson Record", the video documentary of the terror that greets the family in the house on Ash Tree Lane eventually goes public and viral, and many critics begin to either praise it for its powerful artistic nuances, or criticize Navidson for creating an elaborate - and yet seemingly impossible - hoax. This public reception causes a man by the name of Zampano to try and prove or disprove the Navidson Record by interviewing the survivors of the ordeal, researching the house and the history of the house, and pouring over hours and hours of video footage of the "Five and a Half Minute Hallway."

The book actually opens up with Zampano's death under mysterious and questionable circumstances. Johnny Truant, a friend of one of Zampano’s neighbors, comes across all of Zampano’s research and findings on the Navidson Record and decides to pick up Zampano's mantle and find out what all the hooplah surrounding the Navidson Record is, adding his own experiences – and questionable life story – to the already complex layer of narrative.

The most unique thing about House of Leaves is the format of the book itself. As your own journey into the hallway in the house at Ash Tree Lane progresses, the formatting of the book becomes weirder and weirder, forcing the reader to experience a dose of claustrophobia, emptiness, or confusion, much like what the characters in the book experience. Text spirals as you descend a dark staircase, nearly blank pages with single words gives you the feeling of loneliness, and to add to the confusion, almost every page is filled with footnotes with Johnny's, Zampano's, the editors, or other's commentary. And the footnotes sometimes have footnotes. Which sometimes reference other footnotes. What adds to the confusion and reality of the book is the fact that some of these references are real (in our world) and some are made up for the book itself, adding to the fiction building blocks that help to make this book seem real.

I found myself avoiding this book at all costs late at night after everyone had already gone to bed. I now tend to see the darkness differently, shadows as more diabolical than they really are. This book gives fear a new definition because there is no standard antagonist in this story. The house is the antagonist, a house whose origins are never really fleshed out, yet provide much for theories and guesses and storytelling. Is the center of this terrifying house really a bottomless pit? Is the house itself a dimensional portal to another realm? Is it Heaven or Hell? I have no ability to explain the house properly. It is just something you will have to experience yourself when you enter the pages of this spectacular book.

I am very quick to give this book five stars, if for anything at all for the effort the author put into layering this book as if it were indeed the Maze of Minotaur referenced multiple times in the story. Although the book is not without its flaws - sometimes the footnotes to footnotes and convoluted text can become a real pain to try and get through, slowing down the intensity of the book and making me want to take a break from reading it for a while. Even though I won't go into the ending of the book, I have to say that part of it was somewhat unsatisfactory. The author seemed able to tie up a few loose ends and bring resolution to some of the main characters, but others seem to be left open with no indication as to where they are headed by the time the last page has been read. I will say that this book would make a heck of a twisted and entertaining movie.

A fun side note is the fact that Mark Danielewski’s sister, Anne Danielewski – known professionally as singer, Poe – recorded an album, the Haunted (which I remember listening to many years ago), which was put together partly to compliment House of Leaves, with such tunes as “House of Leaves”, “5&1/2 Minute Hallway”, and “Exploration B”.

House of Leaves is an experience, plain and simple. It's not just about characters exploring a house full of winding staircases, dark hallways, and endless darkness. It's about your own journey into the "Five and A Half Minute Hallway." Your own journey into darkness. Your own journey into madness.

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