Art by Michelle Browne, 2023. Yep, I'm back on my bullshit.
An abbreviated version of this appears as a review for the book on my Amazon and Goodreads accounts, but I realised I had more to say.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
for this 23-year-old book (jeez) abound.
I first read House of Leaves years and years ago, and then some friends suggested reading it for a book club this year. Naturally, I figured it was a good time for a revisit; it's probably been fifteen years or more since I picked it up. Maybe closer to twenty. (Jeez, I'm old.)
As much as parts of the book do genuinely deliver a dizzying thrill ride, the beginning of the book actually didn't quite hold up for me. But I have to admit, this is a book you have to binge - try to read it in long sessions. Also there's a ton of content warnings for this book - child abuse, sexual assault mentions, sexual harassment, mental illness, animal harm and death, infanticide, attempted child murder...plus some good, old-fashioned gore and body horror. Lots of horrible, excellent, spooky stuff, and it's generally treated with some respect.
Once you start to "get" the book, the labyrinthine page formatting and the distracting footnotes - they're there for vibes most of the time, and to instill a sense of authenticity and realism - it's amazing.
Is this book the most accessible thing I've ever read? Probably not. I don't even know how it is from a disability perspective - I'm not even sure how you'd make an audiobook that captures the vibe. (Maybe with lots of sound effects and clever editing tricks? Actually, if that exists somewhere, someone send it to me.)
And yet, the overall story, about the mental health issues of Johnny Truant, and the possibility of the entire thing being his invention? Or the invention of his mental health? And the subtle nested story meta-structure thing - is really sad and really cool. There's something very visceral about this sad, sad guy's lonely wandering and search for answers.
A lot of people are tempted to skim Johnny's segments for some reason, but if at all possible, don't do that. Johnny's mother's institutionalization when he was young, his persistent struggles with poverty, mental health issues, substance use, and intimacy, as well as possible ADHD (just to take a few wild guesses), and the death of his "godlike" pilot father and the subsequent abusive monstrousness of his stepfather Raymond, are all essential parts of the narrative.
Yeah, it's at least borderline "dick lit," i.e. a book about man-pain bordering on the fetishistic (i.e., your On the Road, most Hemingway books, Crime and Punishment, Catch-22, Fight Club, plenty of other literary fiction titles - those are just some I've read that fit the bill). But this is "dick lit" that actually shares something scared, vulnerable, and alone, and shows the holes in toxic masculinity - as well as the dangers of mythologizing male figures in one's life.
The creepy Oedipal stuff with Johnny's mother, as revealed in her letters from the mental institution, and the meta-fictional portrayal of Karen, as well as all the hookup girls, definitely fit too well into that Madonna/whore dichotomy. And it's worth saying that the book is extremely white and quite straight - for someone in LA, Johnny never seems to even encounter a queer person or drag queen/king, and homosexuality is only mentioned in a context of denigrating Will Navidson's masculinity, and questioning the fidelity of his wife, Karen. Even the book metatextually commentating on the mother/whore dichotomy, and having Johnny speculate on the inner lives of his hookups, does not succeed in fishing the book out of basic sexism.
I can only speculate about ableism a little bit, but the character Reston felt like pretty good representation, and the mental health stuff - well, at least for me, it worked. The visceral horror of developing a family member's mental illness and recapitulating the cycle of trauma? Compulsive lying or avoidance of personal history to hide the horrors within? Yeah, I get it. Not all representation has to be Perfect (TM), and the institutionalization horror of his mother probably has some problems to unpack with it, but the cloying and suffocating nature of her attachment, as well as her desperate hunger for connection with the outside world, also shone through.
I'll be honest - this is also a book that benefits from skimreading certain sections. I'm just not sure all the physics stuff actually adds to the narrative. I'm not a crunchy enough scientist to take value from it, personally. A lot of people hate Johnny, who is definitely not a Good Person, but I felt sympathetic towards the scrappy young man. I'm surprised Tumblr isn't all over House of Leaves, because he has "scrungly" disaster vibes for sure. (And possibly, considering how much he idolizes his friend Lude, a hint of coded bisexuality? For a book with a central focus on Greek mythology, it's agonizingly straight.)
The good stuff
My favourite sections are definitely the actual explorations of the house. It's no surprise that these are the segments that have resonated the most in pop culture - fans of the SCP (Secure, Contain, Protect) universe and HP Lovecraft have almost certainly run into the main concepts of this book already.
I guess I'm a sucker for a good gothic novel, because there is something decidedly gothic about this one - it's a House, and it's Spooky, and it's about a Family and their mental illnesses. But in this case, the house is something that travels with Johnny, not just the physical location on Ash Tree Lane. The problems with the house for the Navidsons are all part of the baggage they carry with them.
I've been sitting with the whole structural thing about the Minotaur, Theseus, Minos, and the whole stepson/stepfather hate thing, for a bit. There's this thematic element about Johnny being emotionally and mentally ill, and his mother being ill as well - that does seem like an intentional parallel? But there's also a thing about Zampano as Daedalus and a father figure, and Johnny as Icarus, soaring too high on his father's creation, only to be killed by it.
Is the entire thing an elaborate delusion? Is Zampano real? Who is this mysterious genius, this Daedalus-like figure whose invention - the book - ensnares and entraps Johnny, our humble Icarus and Minotaur? We certainly don't get answers, but he appears to be lonely, remote, and ripe for idealization.
Is the Navidson Record meant to be real, or all Johnny's invention? The "editor" character is particularly interesting, especially because at no point do they clarify the reality or unreality of the manuscript.
When, throughout his extended mental breakdown, did Johnny possibly have time to pen this missive? It certainly seems possible that he was doing little else. But when was it accepted and submitted to a publishing company? The book definitely wants to give the vibe of just "appearing" in print. It's very "done" nowadays, but at the time, it was particularly revolutionary.
Why does House of Leaves still work?
Well - in my opinion, HoL commits to the gothic and keeps you invested, but it also goes deep into the mental health issues that make up the backbone of both cosmic horror and the gothic novel.
This, then, is probably why military takes on Lovecraftian fiction and the SCPs all kind of suck. I've watched a couple of Youtube videos and listened to a few Actual Play podcasts of Call of Cthulhu games with a Delta Green focus (that's a special forces take on Call of Cthulhu), and all of them just left me absolutely cold. (Maybe other people will enjoy these live-action takes on SCPs more than I did.) In addition to the fact that I'm just not much into jingoism, and I'm kinda critical of that whole carceral-state structure and the military industrial complex, conservative politics really don't work with cosmic horror or gothic novels.
Sure, military elements can work great - in Lovecraft's Monsters, there's a rather good take on the story of Innsmouth that involves a military intervention - but it's also inherently critical of the role of said military. I do have some fondness for the Warhammer 40K universe as well, but that's also morally complex.
Any kind of military apologia in the face of cosmic horror just absolutely sucks the scare factor right out of stuff. It's too objective and impersonal, when it should be intimate and invasive. And above all - really good horror must come from empathy.
If you crave more
T Kingfisher/Ursula Vernon's What Moves the Dead, the HP Lovecraft stories "The Color Out of Space" and "Dreams in the Witch House" as well as the Shirley Jackson book We Have Always Lived in the Castle are pretty excellent classic read-alikes; I haven't read Grady Hendrix's How to Sell a Haunted House yet, but I loved Horrorstor, and that's another decent read-alike for building-based horror. The "Endless Ikea" SCP is available on Youtube in multiple reading formats, as well as videos, and of course, there's always the original version on the website.
The podcasts Welcome to Night Vale, TANIS, and the Rusty Quill Archives also all offer some good horror content if you want to savour the visceral fear of something breathing down your neck, too!
A writer and professional freelance editor, Michelle Browne lives in Lethbridge, AB with her partners-in-crime and their cats. She is currently working on the next books in her series, other people's manuscripts, knitting, jewelry-making, and drinking as much tea as humanly possible.