In The Devil House
In his third novel, John Darnielle searches for nuance in true-crime
Sometime in late 2021, “No Children'' eclipsed “This Year” as the Mountain Goats’ most-streamed song on Spotify. While the latter was the group’s most well-known song for its juxtaposition of optimism in difficult times (“I am going to make it through this year if it kills me,” goes its refrain), the former is an ode to the hatred caused by long-term partnerships.
This is likely because “No Children” went viral on TikTok. After being posted by a perplexed Gen Z that it was “way too depressing,” it was then, as all things tend to be on the platform, expanded into a dance challenge where users act out the lyrics. Teenagers move their arms dramatically as Mountain Goats singer-songwriter John Darnielle wails, “I am drowning / There is no sight of land / You are coming down with me / Hand in unlovable hand.”
Initially composed solely of Darnielle’s signature vocals accompanied by his acoustic guitar, the Mountain Goats started releasing music in the early ‘90s through boom-box recordings. For most of their existence, the Mountain Goats have been a cult band, not only because of their DIY sound but due to their songs’ subject matter. Whether fictionalized like on the 2002 album Tallahassee or autobiographical like on 2004’s We Shall All Be Healed and 2005’s The Sunset Tree, Darnielle’s songs take on difficult themes, such as divorce, addiction and familial abuse respectively.
To quote the perplexed Gen Z, why would anyone listen to music that sounds like “a middle-aged man crying?” As a longtime fan of his work, I don’t think anyone starts listening to the Mountain Goats because they are doing particularly well emotionally. But in spite of the heaviness of what Darnielle sings about, there’s always an undercurrent of honesty and empathy in his music, themes he expands on with even more depth in his long-form fiction.
Darnielle published his first book, Master of Reality, in 2008. Part of the 33 ⅓ series, Darnielle’s entry takes the form of a diary written by a 16-year-old boy in psychiatric care, demanding that the orderlies give him back his Black Sabbath tapes. Darnielle’s first full-length novel, Wolf in White Van, was published in 2014, about a man whose face was disfigured in an accident. It was followed by his second, Universal Harvester in 2017, about a teenager who finds alarming footage on the VHS tapes at the rental store he works at.
Five years later, Darnielle has just published his third novel, Devil House. The story is told by Gage Chandler, a relatively successful true-crime writer on the brink of another mainstream breakthrough. After he learns about the “Devil House,” a building in Milpitas, California where two people were murdered by teenagers during the Satanic Panic of the 1980s, Chandler purchases the property and starts living there, hoping to write a book about what really happened.
But, since it’s a John Darnielle book, Devil House isn’t told only by Chandler. In both of his prior novels, Darnielle plays with point-of-view and decades-long time jumps in a way that makes his novels quite divisive. Similar to Wolf in White Van and Universal Harvester, while Darnielle initially sets up Devil House to go in one direction, it instead goes in many, jumping around from the early ‘50s all the way to the 2010s.
By far the strongest part of Devil House is the way it explores the Satanic Panic and the genre of true crime with great nuance. In the 1980s, the Satanic Panic rose as a moral panic in the mainstream media, concerned that children and teenagers were engaging in “Satanic rituals,” such as committing acts of extreme violence and murder in order to worship the devil, often possessed to do so through heavy metal music or horror movies.
One interesting case during the time period was that of Raymond Belknap and James Vance in Nevada in 1985. After the pair shot themselves, their parents sued the heavy metal band Judas Priest over subliminal messages disguised in their songs. Vance survived the shooting and the band was found not guilty; this particular case was Darnielle’s inspiration for Wolf In White Van.
The genre of true crime as it stands now is still just as obsessed with murder, but less so with Satan. Rather, the true-crime of today is more interested in serial killers, oftentimes those that seemed like “everyday people,” namely married white men who live in the suburbs.
In spite of its popularity, there have been numerous criticisms lauded at both producers and consumers of the true-crime genre: that it presents an overly simplistic point-of-view, that it’s deeply insensitive to victims who’ve survived violence and that it creates a culture of fear for those who consume it.
In Devil House, Darnielle takes on those criticisms, constructing a meta-narrative where a true-crime writer wonders if his work has done more harm than good. Even though Chandler prides himself on being the kind of writer who gets the story “right,” over the case of the Devil House investigations, even he realizes that the truth is somehow both more simple and more complicated than it could ever be portrayed by an outsider.
Overall, my feelings on Darnielle’s third novel are more mixed than I anticipated. While I’ve raved about his prior work to anyone and everyone, my feelings on Devil House are lukewarm. While I loved the point-of-view and time jumps in Wolf in White Van and Universal Harvester, I didn’t like them as much in Devil House, likely because I sensed them coming. While in the latter works I found these techniques added more depth to the story in surprising and satisfying ways, I found it easier to predict where Devil House was headed from the first section.
At 400 pages, Devil House is the longest work Darnielle has written by a wide margin. The length, unfortunately, makes the novel a bit of a convoluted read. There are a lot of moving parts in the story, as Darnielle describes different characters and incidents of violence at different moments in time. In doing so, I found there was too much backstory for minor characters at parts, and often had a hard time remembering who was who or what murder was being referred to.
While I appreciated his other books for how they managed to do so much in such a short amount of time, I found Devil House to be overly drawn out after a while, even though the writing itself was still enjoyable. Although I’d recommend reading Darnielle’s books, I wouldn’t advise starting with this one first: go with Wolf In White Van or Universal Harvester to get a feel for his style.
At the end of the day, Darnielle’s writing, whether in his songs or in his books, tends to go for it, past the simple option, and towards a truth about the world that is far more complicated. Darnielle’s subject matter is often dark, yes, but it’s also often more honest and more real. And in that, more human, even when he’s writing about monsters.
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