A Review of John Darnielle’s “Devil House”
The Stories We Tell
Back when I was a kid attending elementary school in small-town Ontario, Canada, my classmates warned me in the schoolyard that there was a shack in the woods behind the school that had its walls painted red with blood and had butcher knives and other sharp objects dangling from its ceiling. People were supposedly murdered there, or so the story went. I recall going into the woods at one point to see if this fabled place was real, but I couldn’t find it. I suppose this is the kind of story that grown-ups tell little kids (and then little kids circulate among their peers with their own embellishments) to protect them. I think the whole point of the story was to keep kids from going out in the woods that surrounded the school, which everybody who went there did at one time or another. In other words, the goal was to keep people on school grounds, well within the constraints of safety and yard supervisors, who could keep an eye on you in case you somehow got hurt. In some ways, this is the type of story that is at the heart of the new novel from John Darnielle — who is making a double-threat of himself: he’s both a now respected novelist and is the singer-songwriter behind the long-running indie band called the Mountain Goats.
Devil House concerns the story of Gage Chandler, who is a modestly successful true-crime writer living in California. He has written one book about a murderous high-school teacher dubbed the White Witch, whose gruesome killings have evolved as a story into a kind of myth that children tell one another on the school playground. This book was successfully adapted into a movie, which has made Chandler fairly well-to-do by Californian standards. One day, an editor reaches out to him with the idea to write about a “true” story that took place in 1986 in Milpitas, California, involving two people who were murdered in a former porn store. The murder had satanic overtones as various symbols were placed at the crime scene. However, the twist is that the editor convinces Chandler to write about the case while living in the murder scene — which has come to be known as the “Devil House.” Chandler agrees, and soon gets bogged down in detailing every little thing that he can find about the murders, including the history of the house-cum-porn store (no pun intended) and the people who inhabited the business.
As it would turn out, Devil House is not an Amityville Horror-style haunted house story. Rather, it’s a very cerebral look at artistic obsession and the nature of the stories we tell. As it turns out, the type of stories that Chandler likes to write only has heroes (who are killers) and their victims. As we learn details of both the White Witch and Devil House crimes, it turns out that the victims were practically begging to be killed as they had faults and were not particularly likable. I didn’t like where Darnielle was going with this initially — surely, victims have no right to be killed for whatever failings they have as human beings — but the thing is, and I don’t want to give anything away, the book starts to question this line of storytelling. In a nutshell, Devil House is a mediation on the types of stories we tell and why certain stories are told the way they are. (Spoiler alert: to make money). In its own way, Devil House is a very deep book even at its most lurid and Satanic. (And Darnielle has a long infatuation with all things devilish. Please consult his song “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton,” with its “Hail, Satan!” chorus as proof.)
However, as much as Devil House is brainy, its conclusion makes a somewhat obvious statement about the moral obligation writers of biography have towards not hurting real people still alive in the writing of their tales while making sure that the details of the telling are as rich and fulsome as possible to get the whole story. And, at a bulky 400 pages, the book takes a long time towards making its eventual point. There are pretentious diversions — one part of the book, midway through, starts to recount a version of Arthurian legend written from the stylistic vantage point of Old-Timey English. (I’m still not 100 percent sure what this segment of the book has to do with anything, and people tell me I’m supposedly a very intelligent person.) And because this is a book about artistic obsession, we get detail after detail about the various goings-on at the Devil House over the years — we even get a page’s worth of porn movie titles that the porn store incarnation of Devil House stocked — when you keep waiting for the author of the tale, either Darnielle or Chandler, to get on with it and get to the actual crimes that were committed. (I feel embarrassed in admitting that this is what I wanted to focus on, but that attitude and expectation as a reader is probably part of the whole point of the book.)
Still, when Devil House is firing on all cylinders, it is an entertaining and engrossing tale about the stories people tell for varying reasons and how complete any story written to paper really is. This is the type of novel that could be great fodder for book club and reading group discussions as there’s a fair amount of intellectual fat for the reader to chew on. The book is somewhat nebulous: I’m sure that if 16 different people read it, there would be 16 different things each person would bring out of it. That’s where the discussion aspect of this read is so important — this is the type of book that you’ll want to talk to someone else about after it is finished. Just as importantly, Devil House shows the author’s growing range as a writer and is a marked improvement over his last novel, Universal Harvester. In the end, Devil House is the kind of book, despite its winding nature, that shows that Darnielle can write the sort of captivating tale that conjures up memories of a shack in the woods painted with blood and with instruments of pain hanging from its ceiling. What it lacks in eeriness or full-bore scares, more than makes up for in braininess and an ability to work well as a cautionary tale.
John Darnielle’s Devil House will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux / MCD on January 25, 2022.
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You may also be interested in the following review: John Darnielle’s Universal Harvester.
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