Emily Ruth Verona
I Swear 'House of Leaves' Knows I'm Writing This
Last summer, I read Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves for the first time. And if ever a book could read you right back, it would be this one.
Originally published by Pantheon in the year 2000, this 709-page novel had been on my radar for some time. I recognized it to be something of a cult classic in the weird fiction genre, but knew little of the premise beyond the fact that it was told in a unique way with all kinds of epistolary documents. I love "found footage" fiction and went so far as to purchase a copy of the book from my local Barnes and Noble in the early 2010s, but never got around to cracking it open.
Fast-forward to winter 2022, when I was writing a piece called "Eight Incredible Examples of Epistolary Horror" for the Tor blog. My desire to discuss epistolary works was inspired by how much I'd loved the novellas Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke by Eric LaRocca and The Secret Skin by Wendy N. Wagner, both of which had been released the year before. All the books featured on this list I had either read previously or made a point of reading before finishing the piece for Tor, with one exception: House of Leaves. It had a reputation for being tedious and I just didn't have enough time. Nonetheless, I felt confident in including it based on everything I'd heard about it—including positive feedback from several people who had read it.
The write-up was published in March and I was happy with the way it turned out, but in the back of my mind I was still thinking about House of Leaves. I wanted to read it—as if doing so would properly legitimize what I had written. Like it was my white whale. I wasn't alone, either. At StokerCon in Denver, Colorado that year, I met others who similarly had the book in their TBR pile but hadn't gotten around to reading it. So, in the summer of 2022, several of us decided to dive in. Our start date was July 1st and on June 29th, I went to pull that unread copy of House of Leaves off my shelf. Only, one problem: it wasn't there.
I checked every bookshelf to which I had access. I asked family members to check bookshelves I had used in the past. This book is over 700 pages and it stands a little over 9 inches tall. It's not exactly an easy one to miss. I could remember purchasing this book. I could remember it sitting on my shelf, unread, year after year. Had I moved it to make room for other books? Possibly. Maybe I imagined buying it. What if I had really just walked around Barnes and Noble holding it one time before deciding it was too heavy to buy? That started to seem possible. Likely, even. In the early 2010s, I was very into having a purse large enough to fit most paperbacks or hardcovers and House of Leaves was decidedly too large. That would have made carrying it day-to-day cumbersome.
Regardless of what I had or hadn't done with the book in the past, the fact of the matter was that I needed to start reading it in two days time. So, I got in the car and drove 40 minutes to the nearest bookstore that had the thing in stock. I bought it, reluctantly because I was convinced I had already done this, and brought the book home.
If you've never read House of Leaves before, I'd liken it to sitting in a library pouring over an ancient, long-forgotten text that may or may not be haunted. There are footnotes. Lots of footnotes. And some of the pages have to be read upside-down in fragments. There is a story within the story within the story and as you delve deeper and deeper into the book, you brain becomes steeped in the intricacies of it all. It starts to feel real, not for you necessarily but for what it is: a mysterious text with a curious history.
I enjoyed the experience, even if it was at times as tedious as everyone had warned me it would be. By July 24th, I had managed to read the whole thing cover to cover. I think the last hundred pages I read in one sitting, unable to tear myself away not because the narrative was thrilling but because it was eerie in all the right ways. Irresistibly compelling. Reading it felt like solving a puzzle. At one point, I'm pretty sure the book infiltrated my dreams...though I can't recall any details from this House of Leaves-inspired dream.
The book definitely lived up to its reputation and then some. Reading it was a wholly original experience. Nothing before or since has compared to it. And I really felt like I had accomplished something in reading it when I did. That July was a busy time for me. I was also revising Midnight on Beacon Street and traveling out of state. It was a wild month. Perhaps one of the most significant months of my life in recent years.
But I did it! I did it and my mission was complete. Having succeeded in my endeavor, I happily placed the read copy of House of Leaves on a bookshelf and moved on. Well. Sort of.
A few week passed. Then, one day I was reorganizing my shelves when I came across something I now believed to have never existed in the first place: my first copy of House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski.
Surely, this couldn't be the original copy. I had looked everywhere for that. My first thought was that maybe I had just moved the book I'd read to a different shelf and forgotten. It made sense. My home is stacked with books. It's chaos, really. So, I went into my bedroom to check and sure enough, there was my second copy sitting on the shelf exactly where I had left it. I held the two identical books up side-by-side. I was right. I had acquired a copy of House of Leaves prior to the summer of 2022.
The funny thing is that if ever a book could teleport at will, bending time and space to its own purposes it would be House of Leaves. At the core of the story is a house that's bigger from the inside than it is from the outside. It manipulates time and space in surreal, impossible ways. So, of course this book had played an actual trick on me. It is in the very nature of the narrative itself.
I still have both copies of the novel, the copy I read and the "vanishing" copy. I keep them in separate rooms to tell them apart. And to keep them from conspiring against me. Because you never know.
It's amusing (creepy too, but mostly amusing) to think that this big, bizarre cult classic might actually be sentient—hiding just to fuck with the reader's head. I wouldn't be surprised if the book knew exactly what it was doing when it disappeared, then reappeared. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if House of Leaves somehow knew I was writing this essay about it right now. It's that kind of book. It sticks in your brain. Bleeds into your reality.
In that sense, it's the epitome of a good book. It does all the things it's supposed to do as a work of fiction. It immerses you. Consumes you. Screws with your head. I highly recommend checking it out if you get a chance, though it does take some time and patience to get through the whole thing. But it's worth it in the end. At least, that's my takeaway.
Now, on a completely unrelated note, does anyone want an unread copy of House of Leaves?