As a storyteller, John Darnielle has always been drawn to outsiders. Whether in his preceding novels Wolf In White Van and Universal Harvester, or in verse with his band the Mountain Goats, Darnielle often targets the depths of his empathy on those who society often deems as lepers or pariahs— the goths and the metalheads, the nerdy RPG fantasy geeks, the human beings living on the streets or struggling with addiction. His newest book, Devil House, is no exception to this. But in his third (and quite possibly best) novel, Darnielle sets his scopes a little wider. He's not just singing about the lonely high school boys who tried to form the best ever death metal band out of Denton; this time, he also calls to task those who feel a need to ostracize those boys for drawing pentagrams on their notebooks, and those who soak in the melodramatic gossip of the titilating podcast that might ultimately regale their fate.
Or, for those who are really into Hamilton, Darnielle's third outing is interested in who lives, who dies, and who tells your story. It's also interested in what, exactly, makes true crime "true."
Devil House tells the story of a true crime author named Gage Chandler, as he works on a true crime book about the eponymous Devil House. Back in 1986, there was an occultish double murder at a house-turned-diner-turned-porn store in Milpitas, California that remains unsolved to this day. Two decades later, Gage purchases and moves into the so-called Devil House at the urging of his editor, and lives there as he tries to recreate the crime scene and unravel the bizarre truth of this almost quintessential Satanic Panic story. As Chandler sorts through the evidence — courtroom testimonies, crime scene photos, journals that once belonged to the suspects that somehow escaped from a police evidence locker and landed on eBay — he also finds himself haunted by the ghosts of his first and most successful true crime book, The White Witch of Morro Beach. In both true crime scenarios, there are grisly double murders; there are seemingly-Satantic symbols upon which the police project far too much meaning; and there are some of those aforementioned outcast teenage boys, who have both been wronged, and do wrong. (There's also a really fascinating home invasion / self-defense element at play in both stories that adds some gripping nuance but might be too much to get into here.)
The marketing for John Darnielle's Devil House (not to be confused with the Chandler's diagetic work-in-progress!) positions it as a sort-of horror novel — and it's definitely a thriller. Darnielle's prose (and Darnielle-as-Chandler's prose; the two are not always the same) teems with teeth-chattering tension, even though the basic facts of both cases are laid out pretty plainly in the first few pages of the books. While the arresting drama of discovery is certainly satisfying, it's not the main feast of this book. And that itself is a clever hook: come for the gripping true crime tale, stay for the heartbreaking deconstruction of our voyeuristic fascination with real-life murder.
Gage's task (vis a vis Darnielle) throughout Devil House is not just to tell you about the seemingly-Satantic slaughter of a slumlord and a potential property buyer. The narrator's real struggle is in how to tell that story. We're taught from an early age that journalistic non-fiction is ostensibly "objective" — a writer assembles a collection of demonstrable facts, and presents them to a reader. But that writer still has to make choices about what they do or do not include in the narrative. They choose what to emphasize. They choose a perspective; whether consciously or not, they may even emphasize with one perspective over another, and give that side more weight despite their best attempts towards "balance." The act of presenting facts means that those facts have already been filtered through the writer's perspective, and thus, cannot be truly objective, or objectively true.
Darnielle's Devil House uses metafiction to explore this tension, and it is a tremendously effective device. The prose is consistently luscious, even as it moves like a chameleon from Gage's personal notes, to his published prose, to his self-reflections, and then slips into the perspectives of the people affected by these murders. The book reminded me at times of House of Leaves, in the way that the text is both the text itself, as well as the commentary upon the text; though I would argue that Devil House is more accessible by mere virtue of the choice to position it as a true crime story. This is particularly true in an era of true crime podcasts, where it's safe to assume that most readers are used to a narrator who tells the story, and tells their own personal story about the story to build a stronger bond.
What sets Devil House apart from these podcasts, however, is not just the narrator's discovery that something might be rotten in the US legal system — Chandler wastes no time remarking on the miscarriage of justice at the center of the White Witch case — but rather his realization that the act of telling of a true crime story can itself wreak havoc on the world, particularly for those whose lives were already upended by a grisly occultish murder. Perhaps the scariest part of the story is the idea that the pursuit of truth is nothing without some responsibility to the dead.
Not every part of Devil House works perfectly. The section on the medieval Welsh legend of Gorbonian, while well-written, is difficult to read both in font and syntax, and doesn't illuminate the narrative quite as cleverly as it seems to wish it could (I was comforted to know that many GoodReads reviewers agreed with this, and that I was not just an idiot). The true turn of the meta-plot in part 6 hinges on a sort of coincidence; it's certainly satisfying, and not completely unearned, but it turns Chandler into a passive narrator. The same can be said about the narrative switch at the end — it works, and it's effective, and I don't know how else the story could have been wrapped up, but it still seemed like a strange structural decision, as if Darnielle just needed another reason to stretch the voice of his prose.
Speaking of endings: the ending of Devil House is haunting me. I mean this mostly as a positive; I was unable to put the book down even as relatives arrived at the house for Christmas, and it spooked me out of conversation even after I was done. But Darnielle's oeuvre of work does show an interesting relationship with endings. Both Wolf In White Van and Universal Harvester sort-of circle around their own inevitable conclusions; the truth is there, contained somewhere within the pages of each novel, but it's deftly obscured by Darnielle's own hand. This is not to say that he can't "stick the landing," as it were — it's clearly a deliberate move on Darnielle's part, an essential decision that is intrinsic to the heart of the story he has set out to tell. But I know it can be frustrating to some readers. I've often wondered how much of this might came from his roots in songwriting, where the music, rather than lyrics, is more often tasked with putting a satisfying button on the story. I bring this up because Devil House is much more explicit in both its climax and its ending than Darnielle's previous prose outings. However, that doesn't mean it's going to be any less frustrating for certain readers. Like I said, the ending of this book haunted me (and I suspect it will continue to haunt me for a long, long time). But I can imagine some people reaching the last page and screaming "Are you fucking kidding me?!" as they throw the book against the wall. I suspect this was Darnielle's intention, however, and I think that impulse might actually prove the sort of thesis of the story overall.
Devil House [John Darnielle]