Suspense in House of Leaves

Photo by Linus Bohman
Photo by Linus Bohman

My friends have seen me read House of Leaves recently. They watch me turn it upside down to read footnotes or flip back to pages to reorient myself with Zampono’s narration after an interruption from Johnny, and they always ask what I’m reading. You can’t just give a quick explanation to describe this book, but my brief synopsis usually ends with me telling them that it’s supposed to be like a horror book. After I speak my piece they almost without fail ask, “How can a book be scary?” Only after reading the escape section do I feel like I can provide a competent answer. The element of suspense is what makes this book evoke a sense of fear. Horror films have desensitized us. Blood, gore, and every type of monster imaginable is now manageable. Now, horror films resort to suspense to force their audiences to jump and flinch in their seats. Which is of course followed up by everyone glancing around the room to see who else fell for the classic horror film staple of someone or something suddenly appearing where they shouldn’t be. House of Leaves manages to do this with words and how they’re arranged.

My main example is when Navy is at the bottom of the stairwell and the rope suddenly snaps. Navy is disoriented and Danielewski immerses us into the situation on page 291 where he prints the words upside down and only feeds us with single letters at a time. The biggest contributor to add to the buildup of suspense is the section from 294-296 where Danielewski spaces the word “snaps” over three pages. With the first two letters on 294 the reader knows where this is going, and yet he breaks it up and angles the “a”. I really appreciated this portion because I feel like Danielewski somehow captures a sensation of snapping or jerking by doing this. If you’ve ever been in a fender-bender you know what it’s like to be violently thrown back-and-forth in your seat, and then realize you’re okay. That was what I think he was going for when he made the decision to break up “snaps” and rotate the “a”. For me it was effective. Even Truant’s interjections help to build suspense in a way by interrupting the Navidson story. The unique way that Danielewski builds suspense is what makes this book scary in the way a horror film might be.

2 thoughts on “Suspense in House of Leaves”

  1. I mentioned in a comment earlier how I also believe the arrangement of the words adds to a sense of suspense for the reader, and contributes to the experience of reading that Danielewski tries to create and perpetuate. One thing that I did try and understand is the arrangement of the footnotes. Although it could be strictly coincidental according to what physically fit on the page, I couldn’t help but wonder if Danielewski intentionally adds footnotes in the middle of the plot. I sometimes became a little frustrated, at points, when a large footnote would interrupt a suspenseful scene. I’m the type of reader who really relies on flow, and having to go back and juggle two different story lines sometimes threw me off.

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