By Dean Goranites
The Tonawanda News
Formatting, or the way words rest on a page, is something most readers take for granted.
Sure, we notice from time to time when a book could use a larger font size as we strain to make out words and contemplate getting our eye sight examined. Outside of that, though, how many books can you say have “really cool” formatting? Can an entire novel rely almost entirely on original formatting and still be wildly successful?
The answer to the second question is: yes, absolutely.
Look no further than Mark Z. Danielewski’s “House of Leaves,” a labyrinth of a story that will have you turning your sights to footnotes, appendices, illustrations, sentences running down the sides of pages, sentences found only in little windows in the middle of pages, almost entirely blank pages, interviews, diary-like entries, written letters, secret codes, professional essays, and so much more.
There is a story buried in there, and a pretty good one too, but where Danielewksi shines is in the way he puts his novel together.
Of course such out-of-the-norm formatting would be pointless without a strong story to tie it all together. “House of Leaves” focuses on two main characters. The first, in your traditional sense, is Johnny Truant, a Los Angeles-based tattoo artist looking for a new apartment. As he house hunts, he discovers a manuscript titled “The Navidson Record,” a detailed account of odd happenings that occurred in the home of our second protagonist, Will Navidson.
The story then proceeds to bounce back and forth between the records Truant found and interjections of Truant’s thoughts on the piece, as well as what he’s been up to as he researches the manuscript.
The record of Navidson’s adventure and exploration of his home, later to be named the “House of Leaves,” is where the real fun of the story is. We learn about an odd room in Navidson’s home that seems to shift in length, width, and height at will. The family members have no control over this happening, and in addition, no visible difference in the house can be discerned from the outside.
As the room grows larger and larger, Navidson puts together a team of explorers to figure out just what is inside the ever-growing home.
While Truant’s story of discovering these records, and his tale of what happens to him as he reads them along with us are engaging, don’t be surprised if you find yourself eager for him to quiet down and allow you more time to figure out what’s going on with the eerie home.
That’s where the real fun is here, and if there’s any knock to be had on “House of Leaves,” it would be the lack of focus on what readers really want to read about — the home.
Some people will argue that “House of Leaves” is a love story, or that it’s too complicated to be placed into a genre. Don’t listen. Undoubtedly, “House of Leaves” is a horror story before anything else, and while nuances of love and mystery help to bulk it up into an enjoyable work, it’s the fear, agitation, and suspense the novel conjures up that really make it so gripping.
As Navidson and his crew take off on an expedition of the ever-growing room, lit only by glow sticks and flashlights, we realize just how fragile and unimportant we as humans are. When rations run low, the crew loses track of the way back out, and angry, vicious howls start filling the air space, we really start inching closer to the edge of our seats.
Side stories like the correspondence Truant had as a child with his mother who was in the psychosis ward of a hospital, a section of interviews Navidson’s wife has with those knowledgeable with the discoveries her husband has made and a detailed hunt Truant and his best friend have for attractive ladies at clubs all help to solidify the story as a living, breathing piece.
Are they mandatory for a successful story? I wouldn’t say so. They don’t hurt, though, and I’d argue they make “House of Leaves” just a bit more memorable.
It won’t be any time soon that Stephen King loses his throne as the master of horror, holding such an expansive track record. Still, give Danielewski a shot here. It’s a refreshing take on a genre muddled by way too many below-average authors, and gives a lot more than just a few cheap scares.
Dean Goranites publishes weekly video book reviews at www.unleashthis.tumblr.com, and can be reached through Twitter at unleashingwords.