I’m re-reading some of the books I loved in the 90s to see what I make of them now.
House of Leaves only qualifies on a technicality, since it was originally published in 2000. However, there was an earlier hypertext version ontline. This post contains spoilers.
What I Remember
House of Leaves is an impressive-looking book – partly for its size, and partly for the typographical tricks it uses. It’s one of the scariest books I’ve read, but in places reading it felt like a trudge.
The book covers multiple storylines. There is the account of Johnny Truant, who discovers a set of notes made by a blind academic about a documentary that does not exist. Then there is the story of the documentary, about a photojournalist with a problem – the inside of his
house seems to be expanding. I clearly remember scenes about exploring the
house, and the awful scale of it. Then there are the Whalestone letters, sent between a mother and her son, which I never really placed alongside the rest of it.
House of Leaves is a postmodern classic. It’s a novel whose textual games drive the plot forward. It’s an elegant horror novel. But, in re-reading I’d like to have a clearer idea of how all the elements hung together.
What it was like
House of Leaves was as great as I remember. It infiltrated my dreams, and I’d find myself inside buildings which were larger than they ought to be. I’ve never had such awful nightmares from a book. The dark warnings about obsession with the Navidson record turned out to be true. This is a book so metafictional that it leaked into my life.
The text has mostly aged well although the scenes with Johnny Truant sometimes grate in their treatment of the female characters. Truant’s narration is one of the book’s weakest points, although it would not work without that layer of framing. Related to the issues around misogyny, it’s notable how the book’s references to Harvey Weinstein now take on a different tone.
The main text of the book works incredibly well, with its dense academic critiques of a movie that does not exist. The labyrinth of the footnotes was effective, using every typographic trick it could.
The thing I found most frustrating with House of Leaves were the texts that followed the main story. The Pelican Poems seemed indulgent, a poetic sequence originally written by Danielewski while travelling in Europe. The Whalestoe letters provide context for Johnny Truant, as well as leading to some fascinating theories about who wrote the text – but it just felt like a party that had gone on too long.
Will this book survive to become a classic? Maybe some of the references to real people will fade, but there is possibly enough to carry this book far into the future. And I can imagine a new edition, published in the 22nd century, with an additional layer of annotation, both explaining the references and making the book darker.
House of Leaves alongside my friend Katharine – we have a little 90’s book club between the two of us. It was great to have her responses as a newcomer. There’s a joy to sharing a book with someone else that, these days, is all too often missing.
House of Leaves promotes such interactions. In the same way that Truant found himself connecting to people to investigate the original text, Danielewski’s novel pushes people into investigating it – through discussions online, or Katharine’s colleague recognising the book when she had it at work and stopping to talk about it.
I can imagine reading
House of Leaves again in the 2030’s, and getting just as rich an experience from it.