Decoding Madness: A review of Mark Z. Danielewski’s ‘House of Leaves’

Decoding Madness: A review of Mark Z. Danielewski’s ‘House of Leaves’

By TNHC's Editorial Director, Emily Malone.

As soon as I read the haunting intro from the progressively erratic voice of a drug-addled tattoo apprentice with a history of psychological issues, I was instantly at Danielewski’s will.

But I wasn’t just hooked on Johnny Truant’s desperate, fear-drenched narrative. I was also told that in House of Leaves, the boundaries of book printing are broken, because the reader must actively partake in the creation of the story. And this, of course, only heightens that initial sense of fear. It’s one thing to read a scary story, but to actually have to piece it together yourself; that’s something entirely more sadistic. What the fuck, Mark?

House of Leaves involves different literary-styles like poetry and epistolary writing, and philosophy, psychoanalysis, physics and mythology are also weaved in there. But just looking at the confusingly-structured pages seems overwhelming, doesn’t it? Even the character of Johnny passes comment, wondering if it’s written in this way purposefully, or if it is ‘just one big fucking train wreck’. Of course, we soon work out that it’s the former.

The physical body of the book correlates with the narratives, and the breaks in sentences and fragmented layout adds both suspense and franticness of the stories. We soon come to the creepy realisation that it’s all a textual reflection of the fictitious house’s kaleidoscopic labyrinth which shifts at the very heart of the book. 

What I truly love about this book, though, is that it’s so much more than passively absorbing words set out clearly on a page, knowing that there’s a straightforward form of beginning, middle and end. House of Leaves has a circulatory, intertwining metanarrative which requires you to not only read the novel, but re-read and skip backwards and forward to other chapters, making you feel lost inside the labyrinthine pages.

Johnny will hook you, and what follows will be a realisation that there’s an analogy between language, shape, and narrative, and how this adds fuel to the horror of the “house of leaves” Danielewski has authored. After this, you’ll find yourself frantically scrolling through forums for answers and writing scribbly notes in the margins — the actions of an obsessed reader. Hell, the actions of Johnny himself.

This sanity-prodding book has haunted me for the past 14 years. But hey, Danielewski warns us about that from the very start, where, on the acknowledgements page we read:

“This is not for you.”

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