I can't stand "genre" fiction. The best stories--the greatest stories--defy being placed in just a single Barnes & Noble category. Calling The Lord of the Rings"fantasy," The Haunting of Hill House "horror," or Watchmen a "comic book" is lovely for marketing, because it allows a whole horde of less talented writers to come along and blindly ape such works for mass consumption. But it also spectacularly misses the point. Tolkien's decades-long experiment in cultural philology and linguistics is a very different animal from the likes of Terry Brooks, who has made a career of stealing Tolkien's most superficial elements and recycling them. Likewise, "graphic novels" are now an entire cottage industry as people try to recreate the bleak realism of Moore's masterpiece. But in my humble opinion (wait, screw the "humble" part), if an author sits down to write a "vampire" novel or a "fantasy" novel or a "romance" novel, he or she is already a hack. A writer is in the business of telling stories, and must remain true to the story no matter how many genres it meanders through.
House of Leaves is one of those rare first novels that managed to get published despite A) wandering through more genres than you could shake a stick at, and B) breaking absolutely all the conventions of what "sells." It is mad, impossible, daunting, distancing, utterly gripping, and sheer genius. I haven't seen an author with balls this size since Eco.
In a nutshell, the entire book is a scholarly dissection of the cult film The Navidson Record,containing hundreds (possibly thousands) of footnotes and references. Except of course, that it was all written by a blind madman, there never was a film called The Navidson Record,and the entire mess was edited by another man who went mad in the process. With me so far?
According to Zampano, the blind man who spent decades piecing the book together, The Navidson Record was a sort of Blair Witch documentary that came about when Pulitzer prize winning photojournalist Will Navidson and his parter Karen purchased and moved into a colonial Virgina farmhouse. This house, they soon discovered, was wrong. But if you think you've heard this one before, you haven't. The family doesn't have to deal with ghosts or bleeding walls. Instead, a hallway appears overnight that literally goes nowhere. Black, freezing, and featureless, it opens into an endless series of halls, empty rooms, and stairs...a labyrinth that may or may not contain its own horrific minotaur. Navidson grabs his camera and starts filming, and the labyrinth responds by slowing destroying his world.
Zampano analyzes the film scene by scene, drawing upon a staggering wealth of scholarly opinions by scientists, philosophers, artists, etc. Except of course, the film never existed. When Zampano suddenly and mysteriously dies, this mess of a manuscript passes into the hands of tattoo parlor apprentice Johnny Truant, who becomes increasingly obsessed with it and re-edits the work. Now, as any writer worth his salt will tell you, a first person narrative is always uncertain. The disembodied third-person approach can magically get inside everyone's heads and report the truth, while the first person is one character's impression of the truth. Imagine thenHouse of Leaves, a first person narrative of a first person narrative of another first person narrative. But then again, the idea of the "echo" is essential to the book.
The book manages to tell a page-turning, gripping story that leads the reader, like Ariadne's thread, through a maze of horror, fantasy, and philosophy before discovering the whole thing is a love story. Sort of. Not really.
What becomes clear as you read House of Leaves is that the manuscript itself is the real labyrinth, and that if you read too deep, too far, and too long, the Minotaur will find you. The book understands that the true antagonist in any tale is not the villain or the monster, but the narrative itself. Think about that too long and like Johnny Truant you will go mad.
It is cliche to say "you've never read a book like this before," but you haven't. Really. Never. And if you don't believe me, sift through the 663 other reads saying the same damn thing here; If you are a reader, you would do yourself a disservice buy not grabbing this book.