House of Leaves

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House of Leaves

House of Leaves was the debut novel by writer Mark Z. Danielewski. It became a legend before its 2000 publication when it was first released in various formats on the Internet, gaining a cult following. It was written over a period of ten years. On its release it quickly became a best seller.

House of Leaves was best described by one critic as "an existentialist horror novel."


Plot summary

House of Leaves begins with a first person narrative by Johnny Truant, a Los Angeles club kid. Truant, looking for a new apartment, is told about the apartment of the recently deceased ZampanÚ, who lived in the same building as his friend, Lude. ZampanÚ, an apparently blind, elderly man is speculated to have been French (see below). There is also speculation that this character is based on famed Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges.

In ZampanÚ's apartment, Truant discovers House of Leaves, a manuscript written by ZampanÚ: A very academic study of a documentary film called The Navidson Record. The novel alternates between narratives by ZampanÚ, Johnny, and occasional commentaries by unnamed editors. There are copious footnotes throughout(even footnotes on footnotes). ZampanÚ's and Truant's narratives are printed in separate fonts, partially to make it easier for the reader to follow the sometimes challenging novel.

House of Leaves deals with the Navidson family: a photojournalist father (who may have been loosely based on Kevin Carter), the attractive, former fashion model mother, and their two children. The Navidson family have recently moved into a home in Virginia.

They soon discover that the house is somehow bigger on the inside than on the outside. Initially there is less than an inch of difference, but upon investigation, the house seems to grow on the inside, while maintaining the same exterior proportions. An additional hallway is discovered, then a new room, then an inexplicably long spiral stairs leading to cavernous depths.

The father, along with his brother and some colleagues, are compelled to explore, photograph, and videotape the house's seemingly endless passages, eventually driving various characters to insanity, murder and death. The father released everything he had filmed as the documentary, "The Navidson Record."

ZampanÚ's narrative is littered with all manner of references, some quite obscure, others indicating the Navidsons' story achieved international notoriety. Such luminaries as Stephen King, Ken Burns, Camile Paglia were supposedly quizzed as to their opinions about the house. But when Truant investigates The Navidson Record, he can find no history of the house, proof of the supposed events, or even of the house's existence beyond ZampanÚ's text.

An alternate story line develops in Johnny's footnotes, detailing what is progressing in Johnny's life as he is assembling the narrative.


One of the major devices in the book is the different levels of reality, and how they interact with each other. There is the story of Navidson's exploration of the house and the unseen, Minotaur-like creature that seems to pursue them in the cavernous depths of the house; that story is told through the Navidson Record documentary. The story of the Navidson Record is told through the blind ZampanÚ's written criticism of it, and ZampanÚ's written criticism is told through Johnny's rewrite of it with his added footnotes about his own life. Johnny's rewrite is told through the editors/publisher which we barely know of through a few scant footnotes. All of this is actually written by Mark Z. Danielewski.

What's very interesting is when different levels of reality interact with each other. The most obvious is how ZampanÚ is believed to have been violently killed, presumably by the minotaur, which then haunts Johnny. At one point in ZampanÚ's criticism, he refers to himself in first person as being in the Navidson house (320). Another well-known part is where Johnny's mother, Pelafina, in one of the letters she sends him from the asylum, includes a coded message addressed to ZampanÚ, which says "My dear ZampanÚ, who did you lose?" (615). There are also the similarities between Johnny's revelations about losing his mother, and the original partial release of the Navidson documentary, "The 5 1/2 minute hallway".

A heavy amount of interaction also exists between the house and the book, beginning with the title of the book, House of Leaves, where leaves is a synonym for pages. The book House of Leaves is also the same title that ZampanÚ uses for his manuscript. At the end of the book, when Navidson is falling down through nothing, he ends up reading the book, House of Leaves.

It's possible that that one of the most telling aspects of the story isn't explicitly mentioned in House of Leaves; namely, the ideas of Jorge Luis Borges. There are many similarities between Danielewski's work and the works of Borges, prominently labyrinths, and the nature of reality. In particular, Borges' story "The Garden of Forking Paths" contains the line: "The book and the labyrinth were one and the same." "The Garden of Forking Paths" is even mentioned in footnote 167. Borges' story "TlŲn, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" deals with a fictional world intruding on our real world, a theme explored in House of Leaves. Borges also experimented with literature that took a nonexistant work as its main subject. In his essay, The Approach to al-Mutasim, Borges wrote a review of a book that existed only in his own imagination.

Typography and format

The text of the book is arranged on the pages in such a way that the method of reading the words sometimes mimics the feelings of the characters in the novel. While characters are navigating claustrophobic labyrinth-like sections of the house's interior, the text is dense and occasionally confusing, but when a character is running desperately from an unseen enemy, there are only a few words on each page for almost 25 pages, causing the reader's pace to quicken as he tries to discover what will happen next.

The unorthodox typography and arrangement of chapters or sections is similar to works by Milorad Pavich, allowing the reader to jump around from section to section at will while following footnotes or the multilayered narrative.

It's been noted that the actual font used for the narratives of different people is relevant. Johnny's font is Courier, ZampanÚ's font is Times, the Editor's font is Bookman, and Pelafina's font is Dante.

One interesting feature of the book is that the cover of the book is slightly smaller than the pages themselves, which parallels the Navidson house in that its inside is larger than its outside.

Other Ideas of Note

*Warning* Let it be stated first that there is no "overarching" theory that wraps House of Leaves into a neat little package. It is convoluted on purpose, and many theories that are suggested by the book contradict and/or overlap each other. Danielewski took ten years to write the book, and every word, every footnote, every misspelling was carefully chosen for a purpose. This section will sumarize some of the more interesting ideas in this editor's mind, most of which have come from the official House of Leaves forums (see below). To each reader his own.

Concerning the author of House of Leaves

The obvious theory suggested by the book is that ZampanÚ wrote the original manuscripts, and Johnny found it, cleaned it up, edited it, and published it. However, many people miss the fact that Danielewski has stated many times that House of Leaves is a book that revolves around three characters, three narrators. The third narrator is Pelafina, Johnny's mother, whom Danielewski insists "is more pervasive throughout the book than most people recognize" [[[1] (]]. There is evidence to suggest that Pelafina is in fact the author of the whole novel.

Consider the following:

1) Pelafina's font, Dante - As shown in The Whalestoe Letters (see below), Pelafina's font is written in Dante. Besides the Whalestoe Letters, Dante appears on two more pages in the book. The first is the title page, which says "House of Leaves, written by ZampanÚ, introduction by Johnny Truant." The second appearance is on the last page concerning Yggradsil, the great ash tree in mythology that was at the center of the world. On a side note, the House itself is located on Ash Tree Lane. Besides this, there is the reason that the font Dante was picked. Many references are made throughout the novel to the great Italian poet Dante, who wrote the epic Divine Comedy, most notably the journey through Hell described in Inferno. Dante serves as the narrator of the Divine Comedy, leading to the inference that Pelafina is the true narrator of House of Leaves. Further there are theories that the Whalestoe letter on page 633 resembles Dante's map of Hell.

2) The checkmark - The checkmark that appears on the bottom corner of page 97 is a direct overture to the letter from Pelafina which instructs Johnny to leave a checkmark in the bottom corner to make sure their letters are not being read.

3) Purple - On the inside cover, where Library of Congress information is listed, there is a note about differences in editions. In the highest edition of House of Leaves, there is a note that a word appears in purple in chapter XXI. Purple is associated throughout the novel with Pelafina, as they are the color of her long nails, and also the color of the ink Johnny is putting into needles when has his panic attack in the supply closet.

4) A Big Toe for You Then - Speaking of panic attacks, let's look at that scene a little closer. For this idea I will quote directly from a post on the House of Leaves forums:

>>Obviously, we know Navidson has that weird toe problem. (Editor's note: Navidson suffers from itching and rashes on his toes caused by stress) Things have been mentioned about Johnny's toe, but what about his mother's first letter to him?

"Also remember, love inhabits more than just the heart and mind. If need be it can take shelter in a big toe (emphasis added).

A big toe for you then. I love you."

When Johnny has the panic attack in the closet at the tattoo parlor, his boss asks him if he's all right. Johnny mumbles something about his toe hurting. Someone else on the forums mentioned a striking simlilarity between the panic attack and Pelafina strangling Johnny. Perhaps a broken heart taken shelter in the toe?

One more link.

At the end of the NR, Navy remarks that the one good thing that has come from his adventure is that his toe no longer bothers him. Let's think about this for a second. He has suffered incredible exposure, hypothermia, and frostbite. Frostbite so bad he lost his hand and pieces of his face. He was completely naked. Toes are the first to go when it comes to frostbite (my mom has no feeling in her toes because of exposure when getting lost on a skiing trip). Yet his toe has healed? Because the trauma of the House is now behind him.

Now let's remember what Johnny says near the very end.

"She hadn't tried to strangle me and my father had never made a sound. I can see (possible link to Zampano?) this now. I can hear it too. Perfectly."

The healing of the toe representing the healing of a broken heart.<< This further contributes to the idea that Pelafina wrote the Navidson Record with Navy representing her son, Johnny.

5) Pelafina as Karen - For this theory, there is only one piece of evidence linking them, but it's very powerful. Near the beginning of the Navidson Record, a psychological profile of Karen, Navy's companion, points out her emotional trauma as a teenager from a possible rape by her father, which she buried by "practicing her smile in a mirror" until it reached the point where it was perfect. In one of her letters to Johnny, Pelafina closes by saying, "Practicing my smile in a mirror the way I did when I was a child."

Ethnicity of ZampanÚ

Concerning the ethnicity of ZampanÚ, the prevailing theory is that he was French, served in the French Foreign Legion, and went blind during the military disaster of Dien Bien Phu. Consider the following evidence:

  1. The names of ZampanÚ's seven "lovers" are Beatrice, Gabrielle, Anne-Marie, Dominique, Eliane, Isabelle, and Claudine. Johnny writes "he apparently only brought them up when he was disconsolate and for whatever reason dragged back into some dark tangled time" (xxii). These names were not chosen merely because they sound French, rather, they are the nicknames of the seven defense lines at the military disaster of Dien Bien Phu [2] ( One theory considering the origin of the names is that they were the names of the commanding officer's mistresses.
  2. Johnny tells us Zampano was in his eighties when he died in 1998 (xxii). Therefore he was 26-36 during the battle of Dien Bien Phu, making him the perfect age to have served in the French Foreign Legion.
  3. Appendix D, "Letters to the Editor," consists of a letter that Zampano wrote to the editor of the LA Herald-Examiner about the legitamacy of some rare World War II trench guns mentioned in an article the previous week. The letter is dated September 17, 1978. In the last paragraph, Zampano writes, "On a personal note, I wish to add that as I have been blind for over two decades, I had to determine most of this by feel" (554). Over two decades before 1978 puts us at 1958 at the latest, 1948 at the earliest. Too late for World War II, but early enough for the French Indochina wars, with Dien Bien Phu almost right in the middle at 1954.

Follow Up

The book was followed by a companion piece called The Whalestoe Letters, a series of letters written to the character Johnny Truant by his mother while she was confined in a mental institution.

House of Leaves was accompanied by a companion piece, a full length album called Haunted recorded by Danielewski's sister, Ann Danielewski, known as Poe. The album features a track by the same name as the novel, as well as "5&1/2 Minute Hallway" and other references to the book. The video version for "Hey Pretty" featured the author reading from the book.

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