Mountain Goats singer, songwriter, and guitarist John Darnielle is now four books deep into a wildly creative literary career which began back in 2008 with a trippy look at the Black Sabbath album Master of Reality, seen from the point of view of a character in a mental hospital. This was an early indication that Darnielle was not going to follow standard literary conventions, with his subsequent releases Wolf in White Van (2013) and Universal Harvester (2017) being even more wildly offbeat than his debut. On the whole, I enjoyed both books, which also resulted in a fair bit of head-scratching, with the former built around a play-through-the-mail text-based role-playing game and in the latter, a 1990s video shop (remember those?) discovers snatches of disturbing home recordings secretly taped over their pre-recorded cassette tapes. This author obviously enjoys all things retro.
Darnielle returns with Devil House and, surprise surprise, true to form, his latest release is anything but a conventional work of fiction. To be frank, if it were, I would probably have been disappointed, as ultimately I expect the unexpected with this refreshingly original writer. Like all his previous work, there is much to enjoy in another highly ambitious and original read, even if everything does not gel together perfectly. John Darnielle does not write traditional horror, what he produces is an intoxicating blend of literary fiction which dances around the genres and is notoriously tricky to classify.
Devil House is his unique take on the world of true crime writing. Some years earlier, main character Gage Chandler wrote a very successful true crime book based upon teacher Diana Crane, who was convicted for murdering two students who forced their way into her home. This was a notorious incident which was later turned into a film ‘The White Witch of Morro Bay’. Interestingly, Devil House also includes numerous flashbacks to the double murder, as Chandler receives letters from an individual close to the case, which forces it back into his consciousness even though this book is several years in his rear mirror. I enjoyed the way the two past and present cases are vaguely blended together and the thought processes it reveals of someone working and examining a true crime case, presenting it in a very down to earth and non-sensationalist manner; for example, buying packages of old newspaper clippings from Ebay to get things moving.
Even though the main case is non-supernatural, it still reminded me of the hit film Sinister
. A true-crime writer buys the house which was previously the scene of a gruesome murder and plans to research and write about it. Sound familiar? If you’ve seen Sinister
, you bet it does. Gage is seeking his next literary hit and buys the house which was the scene of an unsolved double murder fifteen years earlier. What is fascinating about this is the murders did not make headline news the first time around, even though they took place during the 1980s Satanic Panic era and looked vaguely ritualistic in nature. The setting of the killings is a former adult book and video shop which is hugely unpopular with the local residents but a regular hangout with teens. Much of Devil House
is built around Gage Chandler’s findings of the protagonists who were around at the time and were the potential suspects, accomplices, or witnesses. This aspect the book fails to deliver, as these characters are uniformly bland and one-dimensional, but you could also argue that this is partly due to the shortcomings of his research and lack of embellishment, so perhaps it’s intentional.
I thoroughly enjoyed another curveball Darnielle throws at the reader; the setting is the small Californian town of Milpitas. If you are a true crime buff then that might ring your bell, as it was the setting of the 1986 hit film, River's Edge, starring Keanu Reeves, which is based on the notorious 1981 murder of Marcy Renee Conrad, where many teens knew of her killing but failed to initially report it. This story bubbles away in the background and had me reaching for Wikipedia to familiarise myself with the true facts of the original incident. Gage Chandler is aware of this and hopes his latest investigation will have the same national impact. However, the story we read fails to bring the sleepy town of Milpitas to life and although the author lives there for some time, I would like to have seen more of him integrating with the locals, something he fails to do except for a couple of brief occasions. Ultimately, there seems little point in actually living in the murder house, as it adds little to the story except for giving him a visual feel for how things went down.
Like all of Darnielle’s fiction for many, this will be a love-it-or-hate-it type of book which tries very hard to come across as authentically true crime, however, bizarrely he also throws in jarring old-English ‘Descended from Kings’ passages connected to Arthurian England. I found these sections to be unnecessary and pretentious and the story would have been much tighter if they had been abandoned in favour of something which joined the dots of the murders more naturally instead of providing a frustrating diversion which adds little.
Devil House is a puzzle and some of the meandering narratives do not make perfect sense, but not all are meant to, as Gage Chandler also finds himself lost in his own true crime investigation. It asks lots of fascinating questions, such as what should an author do if he cannot solve the murder puzzle he is investigating? What if there is not a big answer which zips everything together into a nice package? Do you make it sexier by making stuff up? If this is the case, what personal ethics and morals come with covering such crimes via book form or film? John Darnielle delves into these questions with style, grace and wisdom, and such is his manner refuses to answer his own questions.