House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski is a book that defies easy categorization. It’s a horror novel, yes, but also a love story, a work of ergodic literature (fiction that requires navigating text in ways that go beyond simply reading), and a work of visual art. Danielewski doesn’t so much employ an unreliable narrator as craft an unreliable narrative, and the end result is a story where the reader must consider every word, every footnote, every punctuation mark for hidden meanings and links. It may be impossible to perfectly replicate the experience of reading House of Leaves, but here are 10 books that come close.
1. Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov
If you enjoyed the way House of Leaves requires you to worm your way through footnotes and jump from page to page, you’ll find Nabokov’s classic 1962 novel a treat. Superficially, Pale Fire is the full text of a 999-line poem by John Shade, annotated by Shade’s academic colleague and neighbor Charles Kinbote, who also provides a more in-depth analysis in the form of a critical essay on the work. As you read, however, it quickly becomes clear that Kinbote’s “analysis” is slowly revealing a narrative. There are many ways to approach the text, and the novel was actually used in early proof-of-concept experiments around hypertext. It rewards multiple readings, and no two readers come away with precisely the same interpretation.
2. The Last Days of Jack Sparks, by Jason Arnopp
This is ostensibly the unfinished manuscript by a gonzo writer named Jack Sparks who made a career out of immersing himself in experiences (like drug addiction) and then writing candidly about them. The Last Days of Jack Sparks is the ideal novel for those who loved the way House of Leaves inspired paranoia and distrust for its unreliable nature. Fresh out of rehab, Sparks begins working on a book about the supernatural, recording an increasingly disturbing series of experiences as he draws closer to his death. His incomplete narrative is augmented by footnotes, diary entries, and editorial intrusions meant to explain and contextualize his work, but it quickly becomes apparent that the reader should not trust anything—even the main text—completely. It’s an unsettling experience similar to Danielewski’s masterwork.
3. Dhalgren, by Samuel R. Delany
Delany’s sci-fi classic is one of the most challenging works in the genre. Set in a sprawling, dying city called Bellona, Delany has described Dhalgren as a “circular text” with multiple places the reader can begin reading—it will eventually circle back to that entry point. The story itself is dream-like, unreliable, and filled with imagery and symbolism. The main character, the Kid, makes his way through the city, befriending several of its inhabitants and experiencing a malleable reality. Delany plays with language in ways similar to House of Leaves, with repeated phrases, backward clues, and multiple levels of text replicating the uncertain reality experienced in the city.
4. The People of Paper, by Salvador Plascencia
This experimental book is usually categorized as “magical realism,” which makes sense for a story that includes a woman literally made out of paper created by an origami surgeon and an army of mechanical tortoises. The story isn’t easy to lay out and is open to interpretation as it follows a Mexican man, Federico de la Fe, and his campaign against Saturn (literally the planet). What will appeal to fans of House of Leaves are the metatextual aspects of the book. Depending on the version of The People of Paper you acquire, a name may literally be cut out of the pages (in the paperback and digital versions it will be blacked out), and the chapters sometimes break into three vertical columns showcasing three separate narratives. It’s a fascinating physical object and a novel that’s challenging in the best ways.
5. The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick
Aimed at young readers, Selznick’s novel is ideal for anyone who found the structural innovations of House of Leaves fascinating but who could have done without its more horrifying content. Based on the life of pioneering filmmaker and toymaker Georges Méliès, The Invention of Hugo Cabret is deceptive even before you crack it open: It looks like an immense, 500+ page novel, but more than half of it is made up of incredibly detailed illustrations—the story itself is not very long. Those illustrations aren’t merely ornamental—they do at least half of the storytelling, and careful attention to their details is crucial to understanding everything that Selnick is doing here. Martin Scorsese adapted the book into the 2011 film Hugo, which won five Academy Awards, despite barely scratching the surface of Selznick’s complex, deeply-imagined story.
6. The Raw Shark Texts, by Steven Hall
Hall’s 2007 novel sees the typographical tricks played by House of Leaves and goes far beyond them. Where Danielewski used layout and linguistic clues to create a subtle aura of paranoia and crumbling reality, Hall creates an entire alternate universe composed of visual poetry. The Raw Shark Texts focuses on Eric Sanderson, who wakes up with no memory. Told he has an amnesiac condition, he soon discovers notes from himself that imply his memory loss is actually caused by a “conceptual shark” that consumes personalities. The shark makes several appearances, literally formed by text, and Sanderson’s quest to follow clues and save himself takes him to some extremely weird, unexpected spaces. Even crazier, for each of the book’s 36 chapters there are “negatives” or “un-chapters” hidden, well, anywhere—some have been found online, some in the foreign translations of the novel. Most of the negatives have not yet been discovered. If you loved how House of Leaves literally built things from words, you will adore this book.
7. TheMystery.doc, by Matthew McIntosh
Huge and intimidating, this book is kind of an anti-novel. It’s fundamentally the story of a writer who wakes up with no memory and nothing on his laptop aside from a blank text document called, you guessed it, TheMystery.doc. Just like McIntosh, the writer wrote a well-received novel and then spent more than a decade writing his follow-up. Not a single page of TheMystery.doc reads like a traditional novel. There are snippets of prose, but there are also transcripts, photographs and illustrations, emails, and almost any other element you can think of, all arranged haphazardly. The experience of reading this book is like being hit by an avalanche of words and ideas, and a coherent whole only begins to clarify when you start making connections often separated by hundreds of pages. It takes a bit of work to find out what’s really going on, but it’s well worth it.
8. Multiple Choice, by Alejandro Zambra
Zambra’s novel uses a deceptively simple device—it’s written and organized like a standardized test. There are multiple-choice sections, fill-in-the-blank sections, and reading comprehension sections. Zambra is Chilean and grew up under the oppressive rule of the dictator Augusto Pinochet; he uses this bizarre structure to slowly make a point about how education and standardized testing is used to ensure conformity—the reader will quickly note that the absurd fill-in-the-blank section forces a worldview on you no matter your actual thoughts. Pinochet’s son, Manuel, appears as a narrator in Multiple Choice, but he explicitly acknowledges he is not real but rather a puppet of the author. This is a story about constraint and power—a power you feel while you’re reading, totally controlled by an author who, for once, takes no pains to hide the fact.
9. S., by Doug Dorst and J. J. Abrams
Dorst and Abrams offer up what may be the ultimate book-as-puzzle. When you start reading, this appears to be a novel called Ship of Theseus by author V. M. Straka—a copy taken out of a public library and never returned. The novel is real, and well worth reading, but there’s a secondary narrative in S. in the form of margin notes made by two students named Eric and Jen as they chase down the mystery of who Straka really was, and what happened when he disappeared. Their case files are also included—photos, maps, postcards, and other miscellanea—that offer up clues to what’s really going on here. If you’re looking for meta-textual, ergodic literature, this is one of the most ambitious examples you can find.
10. Night Film, by Marisha Pessl
Night Film follows a journalist whose life is in free fall as he investigates the suicide of the daughter of an infamous cult filmmaker, Stanislas Cordova. As the investigation gets closer and closer to Cordova’s inner world, Pessl uses unreliable narration and subtle details to deceive the reader in ways that will feel familiar to any fan of House of Leaves, and it all leads to an ending that is just as blood-chilling. Probably the most traditional of the books on this list, Pessl doesn’t use the typographical or formatting tricks found in House of Leaves. What links her second novel to Danielewski’s modern classic is the clear horror pedigree—this is a novel that intends to frighten and disturb you—and the way Pessl subtly upsets the reader’s grasp on reality.