This book is not for you.
So says the dedication page of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. For a brief moment the phrase is threatening: Don’t you dare go any further; put this away because it is not for your eyes.
And then curiosity kicks in: if it’s not for me, then, who is it for?
House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski is staggering. It reads like non-fiction and carries a hefty section of footnotes and an index that would make War and Peace blush. Some readers might be put off by this. But just try the first dozen pages if you dare. I felt uneasy chills as I read. That funky little reptilian part of my brain woke up and said, “Oh now, dear, here is something really creepy.”
The book at the center of it all was supposedly written by an old man named Zampano, who wrote garbled words on scraps of paper. He died and left behind a trunk full of personal items. John Truant, gliding through life on drugs and alcohol while working at a dead-end job, finds the notes and the uncompleted manuscript called House of Leaves. The story it contains tugs at the back of his mind. Then it finds its way into his life. Then he becomes obsessed by it. Finally his mind breaks and he begins to believe it wasn’t some old man’s dreamy fiction but something real that happened to a particular family.
The book-within-the-book starts when Will and Karen buy a new house for their family. One morning they wake to find a door to a hallway that wasn’t there the night before. Karen stays with the children while Will goes in. The hallway’s walls are black. Will shines a flashlight but it’s not much help. He decides to go back while he can.
Will and his friends decide to explore this hallway from nowhere. The hallway continuously expands and changes in the darkness. There is also a disturbing roaring sound. Sometimes it’s far away. Sometimes it sounds like it’s a few feet in front of them.
Five men go into the hallway and four come out. The one they never hear from again has been lost in a hallway which leads to rooms with 200 foot ceilings and temperatures that plummet to 30 degrees.
John Truant’s own story is pulled parallel with Will and Karen’s. He becomes the story’s caretaker even as his own life spirals downward. He begins to see shadows where only light shines. He hears breathing and roaring where there is only silence. His own life and memories begin to blend with the story he is reading.
The essence of the book is about sacrifice, fear, family and obsession. What would you be willing to give up if something locked onto you and fueled an obsessive need to explore or even become lost for many months? Would you leave your family behind to find the truth about something that shouldn’t exist? Would you let your fear keep you from saving your own children?
The book may seem fantastic but there will be times, I promise you, that you will start to believe. You’ll start to hear noises, subtle ones at first and then growls in the deep silence of 3 a.m. You’ll begin to leave lights on and doors open.
And finally, there will be times where you’ll have nightmares of being lost in a black maze where all you have is the light of a guttering cigarette lighter as something growls ominously behind you…