I do not, by the way, object to the question. What novel could reasonably be named the Moby-Dick -- an extremely specific choice, even if it seems like a cliche', and Melville's masterpiece furiously resists being compared to very much of anything -- of horror is a subject that, some version of it at least, concerns me as well. In any case, I suspect that book has yet to be written, but all that aside, what I do know is House of Leaves ain't it, for a host of reasons, not least of which is that Danielewski was very clearly, very nakedly, not trying to write the Moby-Dick of horror novels; he was trying, aching, to write the Infinite Jest of horror novels. Now, an argument could possibly be made that if I want to be such a hard-ass about this it's not at all unreasonable to dub David Foster Wallace's thunderous breakthrough work the Moby-Dick of addiction novels (and never mind, for the sake of this post, that this little parlor game grossly simplifies both Melville and Wallace), so therefore, by virtue of its quite striking similarities to Infinite Jest and of it being a horror novel, House of Leaves at least lands itself in the running for the Moby-Dick of horror. But listen, I'm not interested in passing something through to the semifinals because of a technicality -- this is a meritocracy. And more than anything is this: Moby-Dick is a strange book because it is a strange book. Infinite Jest is a strange book because it is a strange book. House of Leaves is a strange book because Danielewski, free of malice and with no wish to deceive, has read quite a few strange books in his day.
It is, of course, spectacularly unfair to hold any writer, let alone a first-time novelist, as Danielewski was at the time, to the standards of Wallace and, for fuck's sake, Herman Melville, but when the biggest name in horror fiction outside of Poe and Lovecraft -- and let's be frank, possibly even including those guys -- and perhaps the most critically-acclaimed young writer in the genre open that door, the impulse should be to grab the knob from the other side and pull back with all your strength. I'd like to think my pointing this out has as much to do with returning Danielewski's novel back to the realm of reasonable expectations as it does with my own ambivalence towards it, though in all honesty that idea has just now this second occurred to me.
But perhaps I've spent too much time on this question. I think I'd hate to meet the person who thought otherwise. Anyway, however much further I might wish to take this, I would only benefit by explaining to the uninitiated what House of Leaves actually is. It sets itself up to be many things, but essentially we have two main stories. The core of the book is called The Navidson Record, and this purports to tell the story of Will Navidson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, and his family -- Karen, his wife, and Chad and Daisy, his two young children -- as they move into a new house on Ash Tree Lane, somewhere in Virginia (it's never said where exactly, but apparently in the southern portion), and the insanity they find there. Which is that one day Will discovers a hallway in the house that hadn't been there before. Not only that, and more alarmingly, the length of that hallway is greater than can, or should be able to be, contained within the house. Measurements of the outside of the house and measurements of the inside confirm that this new space is quite literally impossible And yet. Navidson films everything, and he doesn't begin recording his experience with the new house after this shocking discovery, so that The Navidson Record, as described to the reader, is meant to be a full portrait of a family, not just a family under duress, though a family under duress is mostly what we get, and no wonder. This story is framed by, and shot through with, the story of Johnny Truant. Johnny Truant, an alcoholic, drug addict, and dissolute Los Angeles tattoo artist is the keeper of the manuscript that is The Navidson Record. He is not the author of The Navidson Record (nor is Navidson or anyone in his family), but he is the one who found it among the possessions of a recently deceased old man, who lived in Johnny's apartment complex, named Zampano. Zampano is the author of The Navidson Record. He was also blind, and had a series of young female students and social workers who helped him transcribe and gather together his words and research for The Navidson Record. But Zampano's dead by the time Johnny gets the manuscript, and Johnny, for motives obscure even to himself, takes it upon himself to complete the process of turning this massive thing into a book. Along the way, The Navidson Record drives Johnny mad. (On top of all this, there's an unseen and never named editor, or group of editors, who have tightened up Johnny's work.)
Meanwhile, we learn that the events described in The Navidson Record are driving quite a few other people mad, too. Will and Karen's marriage, already strained, becomes seemingly broken as Will becomes ever more obsessed with the hallway. And the hallway grows, and grows, and grows, and drops and drops and drops, and widens. To the point that calculations (there's a lot of math in this book) show that at one point the bottom of the stairs (there are stairs now) is so far down that it should be at the center of the Earth. And then beyond that. Late in the book, not to give anything away (I'm not giving anything away), rock samples from the walls in this portion of the house are tested in a lab, the results of which test indicate that these rocks are older than the Earth itself. The scientist who runs the test assumes the samples must be from a meteorite, possibly found in Antarctica. Will brings in outsiders to help him figure out what in the hell is going on in his house, including Billy Reston, his paraplegic friend, Tom, Will's twin brother, and a trio of explorers, led by a man named Holloway Roberts, whose initial expedition down the hall and down the stairs will be the catalyst for much of the more conventional horror elements in the book.
With House of Leaves, Danielewski is searching and straining to exemplify the standard implied by the concept of a work of art's form matching, complimenting, and being inseparable from its content. To do this, he borrows from Wallace (who didn't originate it, but did, let's say, maximize its potential) the idea of incorporating footnotes, most of which contain the story of Johnny Truant, told in the first person and printed in Courier font (there are a lot of fonts in this). And Zampano's book -- The Navidson Record, I mean -- is not simply a retelling of the events in the Navidson house, but is also a critique and quite academic analysis of Navidson's film, which was released (by Miramax), and of the entire family's behavior, with scores of secondary sources brought in, everything from magazine articles to interviews with survivors to 1,400 page scholarly texts, Navidson's film having been something of a sensation. Among the topics covered in, again, quite academic terms, are architecture, the history of the Morse code for SOS, Theseus and the labyrinth, the psychology of twins by way of a close reading of Esau and Jacob, echoes, the morality of photojournalism, as well as, no joke, a shit-ton more. Among the real life figures making cameos -- so that they may offer their thoughts on Navidson's film -- are Stephen King, Harold Bloom, Camille Paglia, Steve Wozniak, and Jacques Derrida. I don't even know how many times I sighed just typing out "Steve Wozniak," let alone "Camille Paglia."
Then there's the occasional experiments in page layout, which I referred to way back at the top. Observe:
Regarding David Foster Wallace, it's not just the footnotes that bring him to mind while reading House of Leaves. There are little things having to do with language the evoke him as well, though in a comparative way that couldn't have been Danielewski's intent. For example, the Johnny Truant sections of the book, which are extensive, are where the majority of the "poetry" in Danielewski's prose can be found (Zampano's portion being academic after all), and Johnny being the outlaw junkie gutter cowboy noir poet or whatever the fuck he is, he's presented as being equal to the task of upholding that end of the novelistic art. The quirk of it is that every time (maybe not every time, it's possible Danielewski bailed on, or forgot about, this idea at some point and I just didn't notice) Johnny should be writing "could have" or "could've" or "would have" or "would've," Danielewski has him write "could of" and "would of." This brings to my mind the curiously delightful way David Foster Wallace would often begin one of his rich, digressive, endless sentences about not just a thing but what he thought about the thing and what he knew you thought about the thing and what he thought about what you thought about the thing, with ungrammatical, conversational thought-gathering non-phrases like "So but then" and "But then so." Wallace did lots of stuff like this, and while I was huffing my way through House of Leaves one night I tried to explain to my wife what was unique and so pleasurable about how Wallace achieved this particular effect, though I can't say I exactly nailed it. It has to do with something that is inherent not just to Wallace's style but to his thought process, which is breathless, all-inclusive, rambling, and desperate to be understood. It humanizes the author, I suppose is the main thing, or the most easily grasped thing. When Danielewski does it, on the other hand, he's not capturing speech or thought, because, to pick one reason among many, there's nothing organic about the way it's integrated into Johnny's language. It's not Johnny Truant, it's a typo.
It isn't as if there's nothing interesting about House of Leaves. It is in many ways a very odd book, something that is interesting almost by definition, though what's odd and interesting doesn't necessarily get to that point by being a successful. It's a horror novel (though in one of several dozen bits of meta-ness scattered throughout the novel, Danielewski seems to actually bemoan the fact that House of Leaves will inevitably be remembered as a part of the genre), and the weirdest thing about it as a horror novel is that, stripped down, it's a found footage horror novel. And not found footage in the way Carrie sort of was, by incorporating magazine and newspaper accounts of certain events, but in the same way, but on paper, that The Blair Witch Project was, or maybe more accurately Cannibal Holocaust, since that movie, like House of Leaves, had elements apart from the found footage conceit. Either way, it's a found footage horror movie written out, and in a general sort of way Danielewski pulls this off. Although, House of Leaves also belongs to the subgenre of horror that is about mysterious films, or pieces of film, and the terrifying effects they have on anyone who view them (Infinite Jest had that element too, central to its admittedly somewhat submerged plot). This concept is absolutely catnip to me, or the human equivalent of catnip, Cheetos Puffs, and I'm powerless, in theory, before any novel that uses it. But one thing I've noticed about such stories, and this even includes Theodore Roszak's Flicker, the grandaddy of such books and one of my personal favorite novels, is that very rarely does the writer have much of an understanding of filmmaking, and what's difficult about it, what's effective or interesting or inventive. The most telling moment in this regard from House of Leaves is when Danielewski describes a sequence from Navidson's film -- a film that was hailed as a major work of art when, you know, when Miramax released it -- that is supposed to be just a jaw-dropping piece of brilliance. And what that sequence is, is Navidson edited together a series of shots, the first three of which are very brief, the next three are longer, the three after that are again very short, and so on. It's the Morse code for SOS, you see, but through film editing, and it's worth noting that at this point in House of Leaves, shit's about to go down. Zampano, and I guess the world (well, but never mind, I'll come back to that), were just knocked out by this, but not only is it trite, I could fuckin' do that! I've never edited a second of film in my life, and I could put together three shots that aren't so long, then three shots that kind of are, and then three more that aren't again. I think it's no coincidence that Danielewski's way of dealing academically with horror films and documentary films (both of which The Navidson Record is, ostensibly) is to just list horror films and directors who've made documentaries (both lists just an absolute joy to read, incidentally).
I'm certain there are many, many people who can defend this novel, and can do so quite intelligently. It's not lost on me, for instance, that there's a rather large element of satire at play in the academic material; it's pretty hard to miss, unless you believe that even way back in the 1990s (the "events" at the "Navidson" "house" are meant to have "taken place" in 1993) scholarly film and behavioral analysis was published in People or Ladies' Home Journal. And a lot of people over the years have cited House of Leaves as being genuinely frightening, and indeed there are bits here and there that are almost ingenious, one in particular that occurs at the very end of The Navidson Record, and then another one later when Johnny Truant's story stumbles towards its conclusion. But even in those cases, and even before Danielewski backtracks over everything, he backtracks over those things -- one which might have happened but didn't, and one which couldn't have happened because nothing in that part of the book happened. If such moments are frightening in the moment you read them, does it not matter that the author takes them back? It's like jumping when a cat screeches out of a closet in a slasher movie and saying later "Well it was scary before I knew it was just a cat, so it's still scary now." Anyway what I'm getting at here is that there's something that sometimes occurs when reading a book, but which is not often dealt with in criticism, and that is the reader experiencing complete disengagement from what he or she is reading. In ordinary life when this happens, the reader usually sets the book aside (barring the die-hards, I mean). When one is obligated or for whatever reason compelled to plow through to the end, unless the author rights the course to the reader's satisfaction, that disengagement grows into an insult, and possibly an injury. After several hundred pages of disengagement from House of Leaves, I'd say my sympathy's all used up, and my only thought about Danielewski at this point is, "Be ambitious on your own time."