John Darnielle may be best known as the lead singer of the American indie folk rock band the Mountain Goats, but he is also the author of two previous novels, Wolf in White Van and Universal Harvester. Both these books took situations and plots that seemed familiar, and turned them on their heads. Universal Harvester used nascent horror tropes in its early pages but turned into something more profound and compassionate. Darnielle’s latest novel, Devil House, does something similar. Ostensibly the story of a true crime writer working on his latest project, Darnielle flips the script in the back half of the novel to deconstruct and critique the true crime genre and the act of storytelling itself.
Gage Chandler is a fairly successful true crime author. He writes books about ‘the crimes people tell stories about, and the secret ones our stories seek to conceal’. Some of his fame comes from his first book, The White Witch of Moro Bay, which explored and recontextualised the murder of two young men by their female teacher in his home town in the early 1970s, and was later made into a fairly successful movie. When Devil House opens, Chandler is being talked into a new project – revisiting two murders that seemed to be carried out by teenage devil worshippers in the Californian town of Milpitas in the mid-1980s at the height of the ‘satanic panic’. Chandler’s method is to immerse himself in the story and to try and get into the heads of the main players, so he buys and moves into the house where the murders took place and then tries, as far as he can, to live through the events in his mind and reconstruct what happened through his retelling of the story.
The narrative then drops back to give what may be an excerpt from Chandler’s first book about Diana Crane, known the White Witch. He tells the story in the second person, addressing Crane, the teacher who killed and dismembered two of her students. In this telling Crane is the victim of a home invasion led by one of the two young men that goes horribly wrong. In doing so Chandler considers the role of modern media, and his own role in keeping her story alive:
If you lived in an earlier time, who would remember you? Your name would be known only to students of esoteric crimes … But this is a new era. Americans have been more or less glued to their television sets since the Tet Offensive; that was four years ago now, and nightly drama coming out of the nation’s capital has only intensified the bond between average people and their screens.
Once Crane’s story is told, Darnielle moves on to the events at the Devil House and the teenagers at the centre of them. In both cases, Chandler’s methods tell very different stories to those told in the press or in popular culture:
… the reality was something different from the story told by the local press and, eventually the national news media. It would be a disservice to the living and the dead alike to rehash these stories …
In both cases, Chandler’s sympathy is with the murderer. In his retelling of the Devil House story, he very much wants readers to understand the teenagers in the frame for the murders and their desire to create their own version of reality.
Early in the book Gage claims that he is invisible in these tales:
Ideally you leave as little footprint as possible when you’re telling a true crime story: your job is to gather the facts of a case and arrange them as vividly as possible … It’s like being a florist. You ask a few questions about the occasion you are being asked to mark, and then you hide your own signature somewhere in the arrangement.
A strange interlude in the middle of the book tells a Welsh myth in an anachronistic style with some vague connections to the Devil House story. From this point on the book starts to unravel. In chapters that mirror the first half, the real stories of the White Witch and the Devil House become murkier. In one section the mother of one of the victims of the White Witch writes to Gage with her version of events and their impact on her, making him reconsider his approach and the role of true crime:
What happens when someone tells a story that has real people in it? What happens to the story; what happens to the teller; what happens to the people?
As Gage then reflects on his earlier claim to be ‘invisible’ in his books, he admits that, due to his methods, he needs to consider how much of himself and his own experience goes into the telling:
I haunt dreadful places and try to coax ghosts from the walls, and then I sell pictures of the ghosts for money. I’m not ashamed of my work … but I also can’t argue too strenuously against several cases that might be made against it … I wondered how much of the story I’d come to tell was something I’d brought with me, more outline awaiting shades than a blank page seeking figures who lived in three dimensions.
Finally, an old friend of Gage’s pulls more of the story of the Devil House apart.
With these three interweaving narratives informing and deconstructing each other, Devil House becomes a complex, thematically rich and resonant series of tales of crime and murder. But it also becomes a meta-textual consideration of storytelling itself – why we tell ourselves and others stories, how we are able to construct narratives to make sense of the world and to share that view of the world with others, and how these stories can look different from different perspectives. In doing so Devil House becomes both analysis and takedown of the true crime genre.
John Darnielle’s novels have never been what readers might think they are. He uses genre to draw readers in and provide the foundation of an engaging narrative. But his use of genre conventions is usually to subvert them and open the door to a much broader conversation. In Devil House he uses this technique to deliver to another fascinating, complex and cleverly constructed novel that asks plenty of questions and delivers no easy answers.
This review first appeared on Newtown Review of Books.