Author Mark Z Danielewski
This is the spoiler full review and synopsis of House of Leaves, if you would prefer to stay spoiler free but still want to read about how suspensful and innovative this novel is then please visit here.
House of Leaves is an intimidating novel that defies genre and traditional structure. It is absolutely necessary that you read House of Leaves in hardcopy, not on an ereader, and not in an audiobook if one is available. It’s an integral part of the experience to see how the words are presented on each page.
House of Leaves is a horror suspense thriller, a family drama, an adventure mystery, and a tragic fall from grace depending on which chapter you’re in. It’s also a mockumentary, a madman’s diary, and a film script. It’s all of the above and much much more.
Because of how complicated it is I’m sure many people are searching for a coherent synopsis. I will do my best here. Keep in mind the story alternates between a few plot lines and the summary will be like the book, asymetrical and nonlinear.
We start with one of the narrators, Johnny. He finds his landlord dead in his apartment surrounded by a ton of mysterious papers and notes. Johnny decides to take all of these papers with him, he’s unsure exactly why.
The notes and documents are about a supposed documentary called The Navidson Record about an unusual house. Johnny becomes obsessed with the mystery.
Navidson’s tale is the other half of the story. We read it through Johnny’s findings. Navidson was a journalist who disappeared after releasing two short films about his New England home.
Navidson intended to make a simple domestic documentary about his own family living an average life. Instead he ended up recording a haunting and disturbing trip through physics defying portals within his own house.
The more Johnny delves into the Navidson reports the more lost he gets within his own life. He even starts to exhibit some odd mental effects but is undeterred.
The Navidson family returns to their home from a short trip one weekend. They discover a new interior room that they’ve never seen before. Navidson thoroughly investigates this bizarre phenomenon and determines that the interior of his home is larger than the exterior.
This impossibility causes him to enlist the help of his brother Tom. They lock off the unnerving extra room but it appears to only be growing.
Navidson breaks his own locks and discovers that the room has branched off into many new rooms and hallways. His wife Karen is deeply disturbed and insists everyone stays away but Navidson’s curiosity will get the best of him.
When not reading the Navidson records, Johnny works at a tattoo parlor. Many of his footnotes involve him telling his own personal stories about falling in love with a stripper known only as Thumper. One day, he has a reality break during his shift and wakes up with mysterious scratches on his neck.
From here the reader detours to Appendix ii at the back of the book. We read many letters written to Johnny from his mother in an insane asylum. The letters become hauntingly cryptic and paranoid. She alludes to an incident when Johnny was much younger where she tried to murder him and left scars on his neck. This appendix is well worth the extra read.
Back at the Navidson residence they hire an explorer named Holloway to help investigate the anomolous space. He’s a macho jerk who hits on Karen any chance he gets.
The newly established exploration team discovers a staircase that seemingly has no bottom. Karen also discovers that compasses don’t work anywhere on the property.
The exploration team decides to find what lies at the base of this staircase. They make four attempts without success. On the last attempt the team sends out a distress signal after 8 days. Navidson decides to go in and rescue them.
Johnny scores some alone time with Thumper. Against his better judgement he shows her his obsession, all of the notes and writings about the so called House of Leaves. Thumper will not share the obsession that has possessed Johnny.
House of Leaves really starts to break traditional structure once Navidson reaches the bottom of the stairs. The pages become segmented and fragmented with boxed and upside down text. This includes windows of text that are mirrored through one side as if the text was looking through the page.
The exploration team manages to track back to their cache of rations only to discover that it’s been ravaged. The hear an unnerving growl and Holloway runs off half cocked to attack whatever it was. His team decides to give him one night to return before they’ll attempt to surface without him.
One of the explorers is spontaneously shot in the arm. Holloway has emerged from a corridor in a confused rage and refuses to leave the tunnels as he shoots wildly at the men. They flee in several directions and get lost.
Johnny has another break with reality and discovers that he screams horrible things out loud every time he sleeps. He’s slipping away so he decides to toss every pill and inebriant he has. He’ll go completely cold turkey into all forms of sobriety.
Navidson is able to surface but needs to establish another team to rescue the other members. He returns to the staircase to discover that it is now only about 100 feet deep.
During this next rescue mission the text on the pages of House of Leaves corresponds to Navidson’s location in space. It moves from top to bottom or left to right, it closes in on itself, or opens back up. It’s a very neat effect that give this chapter a horror movie feel of dodging through narrowing corridors or peaking around corners. It builds intensity quite efffectively.
One more member of Navidson’s team is shot but they manage to return to the shorter stairway. Tom lowers a gurney and pulley system for them. They get the injured members up to the ground floor before the stairs shift and Navidson is plummeted down deep into the earth.
Johnny starts to lose large chunks of time and consequently loses his job.
Within the normal part of the Navidson residence the hallway and room system that leads to the stairs appears to shrink. Karen and the others worry Navidson will be trapped for good. But he returns later that night complete with Holloway’s equipment and cameras.
The reader then gets a partial account of Holloway’s suicide. The text has been burned leaving many omissions.
Karen has finally had enough and intends to leave with their children for good. This angers the house and it begins to collapse in an attempt to force the family into a void. Everyone but Tom escapes. He’s killed violently.
Johnny’s life is in shambles. He’s neglected all of his bills and maxed out his last credit card to purchase two guns. He gets evicted and decides to find the Navidson house.
The survivors of the House all abandon the location to move as far away as they can. Except for Navidson. He returns to the house to find it completely restored.
Karen decides she must find her husband and also returns to the house but finds no evidence of him being there. She starts living there again, just to wait for his return. She starts hearing his voice but the cameras that are still located all over the home don’t pick up this sound.
The reader is privy to Navidson’s exploration. He has become hopelessly lost as no matter which direction he goes in he’s only able to go downhill. The text once again reflects changes in direction and the size of the space he’s in.
On Johnny’s journey to find the house the reader is no longer able to determine what is real or not. Johnny experiences a violent black out in which he murders two people known to him. But did this actually happen? The dates in his journal loop and tell very different stories for the same periods of time. It’s impossible to tell what he’s actually gone through at this point.
Then Johnny, about a year later, encounters a group of people who are in possession of a copy of House of Leaves, complete with Johnny’s own footnotes.
Karen finally tracks down her husband’s voice and finds Navidson in the dark, completely frozen and near death. He loses several parts of his body to frostbite but will live because she rescued him.
The house then “dissolves.” It’s gone. Karen and Navidson renew their vows and move far away with their children in an unexpectedly happy ending.
House of Leaves is one of a kind. It’s a truly impressive work of experimental fiction that can only be appreciated when you experience it for yourself. It’s haunting and scary but also touching and heartfelt.
I strongly recommend that you read this book. I know it’s a daunting figure on the shelf but it is 100% worth the effort. Don’t be intimidated, it’s actually pretty easy to read once you get started and get the feel for the footnote structure. You will not regret finally bumping this one to the top of your to read list.
5/5 houses where nothing is at it seems 🏚🏚🏚🏚🏚
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