“House of Leaves” and Reader Interaction Online

Typing www.houseofleaves.com into a web browser doesn’t produce the results typically expected of an official website for a book. There is no brief synopsis, no publisher information, and no biography of the author. Instead, the site features a single letter “Z,” linked directly to a forum about House of Leaves and other works by Danielewski.

The House of Leaves forum is, in many ways, very similar to other forums: there are some members who have been posting for years (a fact they aren’t afraid to hide when trying to wield authority in their posts). Others are slightly less experienced though still seasoned posters, and others come and go leaving barely a theory post or two in their wake.

To me, reading the House of Leaves forum was more similar to reading a forum about an intricately built video game than a book. I’ve never seen such passionate, dedicated, and long-lasting discussion of a novel online before.

What I find particularly interesting about the forum and those who post on it, though, is that this radical reaction it is something actually predicted in the book itself:

In Johnny Truant’s introduction to the book, he writes:

“In retrospect, I also realize there are probably numerous people who would have been better qualified to handle this work, scholars with PhDs from Ivy League schools and minds greater than any Alexandrian Library or World Net. Problem is those people were still in their universities, still on their net and nowhere near Whitley when an old man without friends or family finally died” (xx).

At this point, Danielewski predicts who his audience will be—people on the “World Net”—and does so accurately, which to me was a little surprising in that this type of a reaction has been so unprecedented for books. In many ways, I think that House of Leaves was really designed to spark this type of interaction: as Jocelyn touched on in her presentation, the book’s mysterious are left ambiguous enough to invite theorizing, and so many minute connections and puzzles are planted that internet fans could continue discussing it forever. Danielewski designs the book so that some of these are meaningful (the “first letter of each word” code in Pelafina’s letter on pgs. 620-623), while others lead to final answers that show no remorse about making the reader spend hours decoding without really learning anything, like the code that Jocelyn mentioned, where taking the first letter of each footnote spells out “Mark Z. Danielewski.” Others, still, are more ambiguous: on page 77, for example, taking the first letters of Johnny’s phrases “Where have I Moved? What Have I Muttered? Who Have I Met?” spells out “WHIM” three times, but does this really add anything to the story?

Despite whether or not these codes are actually helpful, the fact that members continue to post on the forum 10 years after the book’s release is a testament to how effective including puzzles like these can be.

What I’m wondering is, how greatly this type of interaction changes the book’s nature in and of itself. Danielewski presents many “dots,” or ideas, in the work, but the correlations between them are ambiguous enough that the reader is left to “connect” them in an infinite number of ways. Thus, while House of Leaves the book physically stays intact throughout online discussion in the forum, the users deconstruct and reconstruct its story very frequently through theorizing. Any dedicated member may choose to adopt a different way of viewing the plot—perhaps a theory contributed by another user—and their reading of not just that section, but the entire work could consequently change. In this way, Danielewski actually invites his readers to not only interact with the work, but to make it their own—it is for this reason, I think, that the internet was the most effective medium for him to take on while establishing the work, and also in which to predict its continued popularity.

Elise Hawthorne


~ by elisehawthorne on March 21, 2010.

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