Posted on February 21, 2008 by Flames
House of Leaves is a peculiar novel, not precisely one thing and not quite another. It isn’t quite a dark fantasy novel, it isn’t quite a horror novel, it isn’t quite a piece of kafkaesque surrealism and isn’t quite a cohesive work of fiction. It is at once pretentious and deep, confusing and captivating, disturbing and curious. The thrust of the story, which is really several stories, is the discovery of a peculiar manuscript by ‘Johnny Truant’ a no good tattoo artist and deadbeat who, thanks to the manuscript, seems to start a slow descent into madness. The manuscript came to him via Zampano, a crazy old man who died and from whom Johnny effectively stole it. The manuscript itself is an examination, investigation and critique into a strange film called The Navidson Record which records the peculiar happenings at the titular ‘House of Leaves’ a place owned by Navidson, his wife and their children and where the house takes on a sinister aspect as it shifts shape and time and seems to try and swallow them up, all of which is supposedly documented on a peculiar film that is doing the rounds.
The theme, or idea, of a living building is one that pops up from time to time and is a peculiarly creepy and surreal thought. Whether it be a haunted house or something more obscure like the internet spook-tale The Dionea House there’s something disquieting about the idea that a home, a source of shelter, could be a source of disquiet and threat. Creating that sense of claustrophobic surreality is something that The House of Leaves does very well through its reporting of the supposed film The Navidson Record. However, that isn’t the only story presented in the book.
As well as the more tightly written and more conventional story that emerges through The Navidson Record there’s also the mystery of the old man Zampano and the slow descent into madness of Johnny Truant as he gets more and more obsessed with the manuscript, the house and his own surroundings. I felt that these sidelines detracted from the main storyline with a lot of literary ‘jump cuts’ that, rather than necessarily enhancing the weirdness and surreality of the main story, detracted from it. While the multiple perspectives and non-fiction approach increases the suspension of disbelief that one feels it does chip away at the readability of the book.
Another conceit that I felt downgraded the book from being worthy of a full five points on both style and substance were the rather pretentious uses of font, text colour and layout, supposedly to try and enhance the experience of reading the book and aiding the surreality but in my opinion just making reading it difficult. Not in the intellectually challenging way that one might enjoy but in the turning, twisting and flipping back and forth way that is just fucking annoying.
All very E.E. Cummings.
(For anyone who has read How to be a Superhero).
Otherwise the book is very successful and I think The Navidson Record would make an excellent intellectual horror/surreality film that would but the current Japanese kings of that particular subgenre to shame. The book – when in good flow – is seriously strange and spine tingling and I don’t recommend reading it alone in an empty house unless you want to feel very creeped out. At other times it is just slow, irrelevant and annoying and, frankly, weighing in at just over 700 pages, it could have done with being slashed back to JUST The Navidson Record and would have been just as, if not more, effective.
An excellent surreal/horror novel let down by bloat, pretension and needless layout games. Well worth a read and essential reading for fans of unsettling and weird tales. A worthy modern successor to the more successful efforts of the ‘Weird Tales’ of the 1920s.
Review by James ‘Grim’ Desborough