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Down Ash Tree Lane: How One Book Forever Changed Me

I had just completed my work for the day, and I was wandering the almost labyrinthine-like shelves of the bookstore when I stumbled upon it. No… I did not stumble upon it; the book almost called to me, like a siren calling to a sailor. The cover was ordinary enough, it being jet-black with glossy outlines of some strange maze. At the center was a red compass, and above and below were the title and author’s name respectively. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, it said. The only thing that made the cover stand out was the fact that the front cover was about a quarter of an inch shorter than the rest of the book. Despite its seemingly ordinary nature, there was something off about the book I could not quite place; a wrongness that enticed me like a Fae luring a mortal into eternal servitude. So a few hours later, in the comfort of my own house, I lay in bed, turning to the first page. This was when I knew this would be far from any mundane reading experience. 

“This is not for you.” 

No wholesome or heartfelt dedication. Just those five words that were a warning to any who dared open the tome of a novel that was House of Leaves. Once I glanced at the Table of Contents, the strangeness of this novel was not a question, but a certainty (seriously, what novel has an index and three appendixes?). And so my obsessive and ethereal dance with the novel began. 

I quickly noticed that this novel was less of a story, and more of an experience. Sure, there was an intricate, multi-layered plot and flawed characters (which all great novels should have), but the novel itself (the words) was what brought those aspects to life. Diction and syntax were discarded in favor of twisting spirals of words and crossed out, feverish ramblings of the (fictional) author. 

House of Leaves disguised itself as a haunted house story (the synapsis had me believe that a sinister creature inhabits the house), but I realized that it was actually a love letter to psychological horror, and a satire of academic analysis at the same time when I closed the book for the final time. There are multiple layers to a single, interconnected story about the house. The most obvious ones are the stories of Zampano and Johnny Truant, along with the Navidson Record (A film by the Navidson family to record their daily experiences). Zampano analyzes the Navidson Record to an almost obsessive degree, and Johnny leaves footnotes and journal entries of his own life as his grip on reality is torn from him.

This book was not about Zampano or Johnny or the Navidson family, but about me and mythology and the house and the Minotaur and the labyrinthine nature of the human condition intertwined with our perception of reality. It is not about the plot or even the layout or the structure or the symbolism, but the chilling revelations long after I had moved on from the novel. This is the kind of novel in which a checkmark on the margins can terrify you if you paid attention to the minute mention of it near the end. This is the kind of novel where a classic story is turned inside out and shines a whole new meaning on the word “labyrinth.” 

This book was a journey. It pushed the boundaries of what I considered a novel, and explored so many intriguing themes (our perception of reality is one) through so many interlinking parts. In the infinite kingdom of the house, there is a room for everyone. In the end, this was for me. 

But the impact of this novel ran far deeper than simple enjoymnt. In the center of the labyrinth that is this novel was a profound message about the scars trauma can leave behind, and how our own minds can betray us, no matter how hard we try to control it. Despite its grim themes, House of Leaves left me with newfound optimism, how, no matter what we experience or what trauma or problems we encounter in life, we will, at some point in the future, be okay. How, even in the darkest depths of despair, we can always find the light behind the fear and anger. 

This novel also changed my perception of writing. Never in my experience of reading hundreds of novels have I ever found a book quite like this one. It somehow blends multiple styles of prose, poetry, and visual arts seamlessly to create a masterpiece that defies genre and explanation. With so many varying elements, characters, and plotlines, this novel is bound to find a home in many shelves. In the end, House of Leaves not only changed me, but fundamentally broadened my perception of what writing even is. I’ll leave you all with my favorite poem from the novel: 

“Little solace comes 

to those who grieve 

when thoughts keep drifting 

as walls keep shifting 

and this great blue world of ours 

seems a house of leaves 

moments before the wind.” 

After all, agony ends the moment it finds a meaning.

written by Coemi Deremi


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